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OPINION: What does free speech mean to people in the U.S., anyway?

March 18th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Freedom of speech is one of those human rights that we all take for granted, perhaps more than any other, especially when it comes to the right to discuss, disagree and protest the policies that govern our lives.

In the United States, that right is guaranteed in the 1791 amendment to the Bill of Rights, later called the First Amendment, which protects, in a single sentence, the right to free exercise of religion, without government interference, the right to free speech, free press, peaceful protests, and the right to tell government what you think of them. That's a weighty sentence, to be sure, but in large part, it has become as interwoven into American culture as "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Especially at a small-town level, our political culture allows anyone to testify in opposition or support to policies and be heard, no matter who they are, from prominent businessmen to those bordering on homelessness. It is given to all ages, races, demographics and genders.

That right is not removed if the opinion in question is irrelevant, illogical or a full-blown rant. Attend city council meetings on a regular basis and you will see and hear it all.

But what about elected officials? Do they have the same rights or does their seat on a governing body make mute their personal voice? The courts, by and large, say that elected officials do, in fact, have a right to self-expression, even if that expression is ill advised, reactive, and inflammatory.

For the most part, you can apply common sense to this issue. As individuals, elected officials are simply human beings. They can speak their mind all they want, rant about policies and fellow politicians, post memes on Facebook or Tweet late-night thoughts or whatever forum they want to use to get on their soapbox. Freedom of speech is only curtailed among elected officials if they are somehow using their position, or their vote, to unduly influence public process, or advocate for something in which they have a vested interest.

Some rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, in fact, have said that elected officials have a mandate to inform the public about their position on issues, so that voters can make educated, informed decisions. So one must question any restrictions to the freedom of speech of elected officials, either through legal restrictions or through threats to their position as an elected official.

Newspapers have essentially served as a bulletin board for free speech, printing letters to the editor, opinion columns and stories where journalists take care to get comments from both sides of controversial issues whenever possible. Sometimes, that capacity is curtailed, however, by gag orders on public or private workers, and especially, by fears of litigation or threats to their position as an elected official.

While one might assume that limiting speech in certain situations would allow for the control of public opinion, that is not typically the case.

A lack of information generally leads to the spread of misinformation, which in many cases is more damaging than the real facts might have been in the first place. While providing clear information doesn't stop those prone to conspiracy theories from going down those rabbit holes, the simple fact is that most of us seek out fact-based information when making a decision.

What the founding fathers of the United States knew, and what anyone following public reaction to issues knows is that more information is always better than less, even if it is a messy, disjointed process.

The right to free speech for everyone is the cornerstone of our democracy, and any attempt to control or restrict that right, even if it is wrapped in the premise of promoting peace or protecting public interests, is dangerous.


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