Why Do So Many People Misunderstand the 1st Amendment on Freedom of Speech?
An uproar over Chick Fil A highlighted once again widespread ignorance about the US Constitution and the 1st Admendment right to Freedom of Speech. Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy said this about gay marriage:
...we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage. And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.
His comments led to protests against the fast food restaurant chain by supporters of gay rights and counterprotests by gay marriage opponents. The 1st Amendment right to free speech has been wrongly brought into the debate.
Free Speech Rights
Many people incorrectly assume that free speech rights mean that someone should be able to say whatever they want and not experience any opposition, consequences or backlash. When Don Imus and Dr. Laura were forced off the air for comments many people considered racist, some supporters wrongly claimed their comments were protected by the 1st Amendment.
But this isn't what free speech is about at all. Here is the text of the 1st Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Congress or the government in general can't prohibit free speech. The government can't punish people for their speech. But private businesses and the general public can. Private businesses don't have to respect free speech. You can legally be fired for saying the wrong thing at work. The general public can organize boycotts of businesses that support things they don't agree with. They can demand the resignations of prominent figures who say things they disagree with on the air. This is in no way a violation of free speech rights. It may be too harsh or unfair but it doesn't actually violate the 1st Amendment.
The people who are both protesting against and supporting Chick Fil A have every right to do so. The people who forced comedian Daniel Tosh to apologize for an inappropriate joke had every right to do so. The radio station executives who blacklisted the Dixie Chicks after band member Natalie Maines made a negative comment about President George W. Bush had a right to do so.
People will disagree about whether the consequences for certain speech may be too harsh. But it isn't right to bring the 1st Amendment into debates that don't involve the government limiting speech. It's very troubling that many Americans don't properly understand something as basic as the 1st Amendment to the Constitution.
Yes, we have the right to say whatever we want. But others have the right to dislike, criticize and challenge what we say. They have a right to hold us accountable. That is in no way a violation of free speech rights. There are plenty of cases where the consequences for speech are extremely unfair. There are plenty of situations where censorship goes way too far. But it isn't a 1st Amendment free speech violation when the government isn't involved.