Too Many People Misunderstand the 1st Amendment on Freedom of Speech

Updated on May 19, 2017

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.

Questions & Answers

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      • William Avitt profile image

        William Avitt 

        3 years ago from Dayton, Ohio

        It isn't just the First Amendment. As you stated, the Constitution as a whole is there solely to limit the power of the government concerning the civil rights of the citizenry. Private institutions are not bound by the Constitution and you essentially have no civil rights on private property. You can't tell your boss off and expect not to get fired. You can't carry a firearm into a private establishment that sets policy against firearms. That doesn't violate your Second Amendment rights, it protects the rights of the business owner to run their business as they see fit. And if enough gun owners (obviously this is just a random example) that choose not to patronize that business, they will change their policies. The overturning of Jim Crow laws during the civil rights movement wasn't about forcing establishments to serve blacks (or whoever they choose to discriminate against). It was wrong for that to be the law. I should have the right to serve black (or gays or whoever) if I want to and the law shouldn't be able to take that right away from me. By the same token, I should be free to discriminate against whoever I want and if my business suffers because of it, well I have paid the price for the exercise of my freedom. With great liberty comes great responsibility. The Constitution protects my liberty, it does not protect me from the repercussions of how I choose to exercise that liberty.

      • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

        Learn Things Web 

        4 years ago from California

        MizBejabbers,

        The Dixie Chicks incident probably is more of a gray area due to FCC regulations. Good point.

      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James-MizBejabbers 

        4 years ago

        You have a very good explanation, including a balance of both sides of the issues, of free speech. I think the only gray area is the Dixie Chicks blacklisting. Seems I remember that Senator Joe McCarthy was censured by Congress for his blacklisting of so many Hollywood Stars. Blacklisting is illegal. Perhaps you’ve used a wrong term here and should have said “banned from the station.” I’m a former broadcaster who worked under strict FCC regulation and I take these things seriously. It is a good hub. Voted up++

      • profile image

        HeatherDRoberts 

        6 years ago

        Thank you for writing this. I was waiting for something about Chick-Fil-A.

      • samsons1 profile image

        Sam 

        6 years ago from Tennessee

        Very good article and well written. The sad thing is the mentality and lack of understanding of the respondents and 'boy cotters' many of whom were probably back in line the next day for some of that gooood chicken. Voted Up, useful, interesting and shared...

      • dianetrotter profile image

        G. Diane Nelson Trotter 

        6 years ago from Fontana

        Good hub! I enjoyed reading it and the comments.

      • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

        Learn Things Web 

        6 years ago from California

        tmbridgeland,

        I do point out in the hub that it would be a violation of the 1st Admendment for the government to do that. But if residents of those cities wanted to organize and keep Chick-Fil-A out they would have every right to do so. Yes, the government can't punish speech but the general public can.

      • tmbridgeland profile image

        tmbridgeland 

        6 years ago from Small Town, Illinois

        Kind of missing the point here. Various government leaders are saying they will stop, or attempting to stop CFA from opening shops in their cities because of the opinion of one person. That IS a violation of the first amendment. And that is what the support for CFA was about. People object to the government telling us the correct opinion to hold.

      • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

        Learn Things Web 

        6 years ago from California

        BJC,

        Chick-Fil-A does have a right to a point of view. But so do the people who oppose that point of view. It doesn't make sense to me that CFA should be able to express an opinion but not people who disagree with that opinion. Everyone should have a right to their say. Sometimes speech does have consequences. I really think companies should stay neutral on politics and social issues. They have a legal right to a point of view but it probably doesn't make good business sense when you serve a very diverse public.

      • BJC profile image

        BJC 

        6 years ago from Florida

        A person doesn't have to agree with CFA to realize that as a privately owned company they can have any opinion they choose. Just because a person or a company doesn't agree with the latest law or issue does not mean they are hate-filled. People and privately owned corporations have the right to express an opinion on anything. Why should everyone agree with the latest issue? CFA did not say they hated homosexuals but that they did not agree with gay marriage - it really is okay to disagree! The problem arises because too many assume that because a person or privately owned company disagrees with the latest public issue that it’s because of hate. No, not hate, but we are entitled to have different opinions and get along. I don’t support gay marriage but have had gay people as friends because they are human beings. Let’s just stop the hate and allow people and privately owned companies to express an opinion without such backlash.

      • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

        Learn Things Web 

        6 years ago from California

        ib radmasters,

        That's a good point to bring up. People do have some legal recourse in defamation cases.

      • ib radmasters profile image

        ib radmasters 

        6 years ago from Southern California

        I totally agree with you and this hub.

        I would say that free speech among the people without the government involvement is left to the laws of defamation. This covers libel (written) and slander (spoken). Basically truth is an absolute defense against defamation.

      • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

        Learn Things Web 

        6 years ago from California

        Wayne,

        Exactly! The 1st Amendment was written to prevent government tyranny and not for any other purpose. It's surprising that more people don't understand that. Especially since it's so clearly written.

      • Learn Things Web profile imageAUTHOR

        Learn Things Web 

        6 years ago from California

        Mtbailz,

        Yes, that would definitely violate the 1st Amendment because it would be a government official trying to punish someone for their speech.

      • Wayne Brown profile image

        Wayne Brown 

        6 years ago from Texas

        Well stated. Our access to jobs, especially those in which our comments could be construed as the opinions of those providing the platform for can and do limit our rights to free speech just as a company's actions can and does limit its access to a given consumer base. One may work for IBM but that does in no way make that person a "spokesman" for IBM. Talk radio host may offer their opinions on the air by way of paid advertising sponsors but that in no way assumes that they are the opinions of the network providing the platform for those shows and most stations state that fact up front. If we claim that the Chik-Fil-A CEO has no right to make his statement then in turn we could also claim that the Baptist magazine conducting the interview has no right to print it. In that sense, if that type of compliance is gained by the opposition the freedom of speech and of the press had been infringed upon but not in a legal fashion consistent with the Constitution...but through the ignorance of those on both sides who put stock in the argument. The restriction as outlined in the 1st Amendment has everything to do with the "government's ability to limit or disallow" and it was purposely written in such a manner because the framers understood that tyranny breeds within a government and that the marketplace would find its own balance in the matter. Good write! Up! WB

      • profile image

        Mtbailz 

        6 years ago

        Well sort of. The first amendment would apply in this case if mayor menino really tried to stop chick-fil-a from entering Boston. He is a government official and to deny a company based on a man's words is unconstitutional.

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