The First Amendment to the Constitution gives people the right to free speech. But what does “free speech” actually mean and are there any limits to that freedom?
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Free Speech: The right to express opinions or beliefs without the government telling you what you can and cannot say
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Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Britanny: Hey Connor, how are you?
Connor: I am well. How are you, Brittany?
Britanny: Wonderful. Wonderful. I had a question today.
Britanny: I’ve been thinking a lot about protests and people assembling and what you’re allowed to say. And that got me really thinking what exactly is free speech? What does that mean? We hear it all the time. We hear it through it out the news on college campuses, but what does that mean? What am I allowed to say? What can’t I say?
Connor: Free is kind of a weird word, right?
Britanny: It’s kind of a weird word.
Connor: Like oh I don’t have to pay for it. Right.
Connor: So it’s free in the sense that it doesn’t cost me any money, but I think the free means freedom, right? You have the freedom of speech. And speech, in other words, I’m not gonna get up on a platform and make a speech, it’s speeches and communication. So free speeches, I have the freedom to communicate, to share my ideas, to talk openly about what I believe. Even if it’s something the government disagrees with or some politician doesn’t like, right.
Britanny: So not just speech, but that would be writing even, right. So I’m a writer…
Britanny: …And I write for a lot of newspapers. So does that mean, that means what I could say in a newspaper, right? Or even online what I could say in a tweet or on a Facebook or Instagram post.
Connor: Or videos, right? So, that’s important. Why, why is that important? Let’s look throughout history when there have been cases when the government did not protect free speech, and there’s been a number of examples when individuals, I think we mentioned on it might have been the last episode where in one case Benjamin Franklin’s grandson who, who had a newspaper, was writing things critical of the president and he was thrown in jail for it. Right. There have been a number of cases around the world where they don’t have the, the freedom of speech or even in America when they haven’t really protected the freedom of speech in the Constitution, right? Where people have been punished for the things that they have said that the government doesn’t like.
Britanny: Yeah, absolutely. And, and one thing that I always wonder though, what if what I say hurts someone else’s feelings, not even the government. We talked about, you know, Ben Franklin’s grandson who said something bad about the president. What if I say something bad about you, Connor? What if I say something or what if I say something you don’t like? Let’s start with that one. What if I say something you don’t like and I’ve hurt your feelings? Does that mean, I can’t say it?
Connor: That’s interesting, right? Because especially when you look at things like social media with Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram.
Britanny: I don’t like a lot of what I see on social media.
Connor: Yeah and so, you know, in that case, it’s wrong. We’ve established that it’s wrong for the government to restrict our freedom of speech. However, is it okay for companies, private companies like Facebook to say, well, we don’t want anyone to say anything that hurts someone else’s feelings to your question. If you say something and someone reports your post because it hurt their feelings, we think that’s wrong. And, we would probably agree, Brittany, that a private company has the right to do whatever it wants so they could set those terms. I just think that would be really dumb because we would create a society where we can’t challenge one another’s ideas and have open discourse about things we disagree with or say things that are a little bit controversial that are nevertheless true. And so if we protect people in their little bubbles, I don’t think we end up with a very healthy society. What are your thoughts?
Britanny: I think we’ve seen that today. I think that happens a lot. We kind of block people or we stop talking to people we don’t disagree with. And now we’ve been left kind of fragmented, broken apart where a lot of us don’t know how to get along with each other anymore. Just because we don’t agree on a political issue or we don’t have the same opinion on something. So I think it’s important that we get this information out there. It doesn’t mean you always have to be mean or rude about it, right. But, but you can be, you have the right to be, but you should definitely be sharing your opinion with others, whether or not they agree with it or not.
Connor: Where I’ve seen some problems, Brittany, over the years, especially is on college campuses.
Connor: There have been a number of instances when clubs of people maybe they’re libertarian and they wanna share pocket constitutions. I know the young Americans for Liberty has run into those issues where some college administrator, like a boss in charge, will say, you’re not allowed to do that or you don’t have a permit. And it’s important maybe to distinguish that a private college has the right to control its property and they can not let people protest or do things, but a so-called public college or a taxpayer funded college, because they’re the government involved. Then they have to protect people’s free speech. So Brittany, you─you’ve seen a little bit of that too. What’s been your observation about how the government or especially colleges, public or taxpayer funded colleges have been protecting or violating so-called free speech.
Britanny: Yeah. So there is a speaker that I love, his name is Jordan Peterson. And he went around to a lot of college campuses to just talk about psychology. A lot of it wasn’t even political but there were a lot of students that had it under or in their minds that he did not share the right beliefs. They didn’t agree with what he had to say, but instead of letting him speak and then maybe going up during the Q and A, when they are allowed to ask questions and, and start a conversation, instead they were rating these big meetings and they were not letting him speak. They were shouting, they were, you know, bringing blow horns. They were doing all these things to, to cause distress, to cause kind of chaos in these speeches. So it’s been really interesting because when I think of college, I think that’s a place, if you’re going to go…that you’re gonna go there to get all sorts of different ideas, right?
Britanny: You’re gonna get ideas that you’ve never heard before, some that you might think are appalling. But you’re going to get presented with each of these ideas and then you, as an individual, as the student have the right to say, like, okay, I agree with that. Or maybe, no, I don’t agree with that, but we’re not doing that anymore, are we?
Connor: Yeah. I, and I think that’s been a big problem. And when those cases have been challenged in court, when people try and sue the college and try and stop that from happening, they typically win because these colleges are in the wrong. They are government institutions, they are taxpayer funded so they do have to let people do a protest or pass out pocket constitutions or…
Connor: …You know demonstrate.
Britanny: There’s actually…there’s a great organization that helps with that. They’re called FIRE, and FIRE they actually help students from universities. So when young Americans for Liberty, someone was passing out pocket constitutions, like you mentioned, and they got in trouble. They think they actually got for, I don’t think they got handcuffed, but they got reprimanded by the police. They were held for a second, but FIRE went in and they helped them file a lawsuit and they were able to win and they were able to get some justice for those students.
Connor: That’s great.
Britanny: So FIRE does great things.
Connor: I think FIRE stands for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, I think…
Connor: …That’s what their name is for.
Connor: So, for any listeners who want to go look that up. Yeah. Great organization. That’s fighting for free speech on college campuses because you’re right. Britanny. It is a lot of like the, I’ll call it social shaming, people with bullhorns and kind of, you know, trying to, to shut down speech that they don’t like. And that, you know, as much as we don’t like it, at least, at that point, they’re not getting the government involved per se. They’re just using their own speech to try and undermine the speech of someone else. I don’t─
Britanny: That’s a good point.
Connor: I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think it’s healthy for our society, but, you know but on the other hand, if they’re being disruptive of, of a meeting and they’re kind of trespassing, if you will, or they’re, you know, they might need to be removed from that meeting if they’re not allowing for the free exchange of ideas.
What I remember in particular is something even more silly when it comes to this idea of free speech. I remember, when the Iraq war was really kind of hot and heavy in the likes 2003 and four…
Connor: …And around then and the president in charge was George Bush at the time and he was going around
Britanny: First or the second one? Second one, right?
Connor: Uh George, yeah. George W. Bush and the son. And so he was going around the country to different speaking engagements. And there were a lot of people who were very upset with the way the Iraq war was being handled. They thought the government was lying. They thought President Bush was kind of, you know, corrupt and making bad decisions. And, you know, people have every right to their opinion. And I probably have some strong opinions that might even agree with some of those criticisms of the war, but the point is that these people wanted to make their voice heard. They wanted to protest the actions of their own government and they wanted to kind of protest President Bush and─and they have every right according to the Constitution to express those things.
Britanny: First amendment, the first amendment is what gives them that right.
Connor: Exactly, maybe we can talk a little bit more in detail about that in a second. What I remember about this particular period of time though, was how amazingly awful the federal government was regarding free speech, cause what they were doing is they would, they would prohibit people from protesting President Bush and instead, they would set up what they called free speech zones. They would literally mark off territory, like a, fenced-off kind of…
Britanny: Like a little cage.
Connor: ….Corner Street. Exactly. And they would say, this is where we have designated, for those of you who want to make your voice heard, you have to do it over here. And in one case, I remember it was like a mile and a half away from where the president even was. They couldn’t be across the street. They couldn’t be lining the street where his motorcade was driving, you know, and obviously safety and all that kind of stuff. N-No, question there.
Britanny: But I don’t think he even got to hear what they had to say probably.
Connor: Right and so how meaningful is that protest, if you can’t get with any, within any proximity of the people who were there to hear President Bush or President Bush himself, it’s kind of like out of sight, out of mind, right?
Britanny: Yup. And it seems very intentional that maybe they did that on purpose.
Connor: I think you’re right. If we just kind of sideline these protesters, the media won’t be over there, and no one will care. They’ll be able to exercise there, you know, their freedom of speech, but we won’t have to deal with them. And that’s not what freedom of speech is about. It’s very much meant for kind of the clash of ideas and, disagreeing people who can kind of express their views and make themselves heard. So, and I’ve seen even some colleges going back to the college examples, I’ve seen examples of colleges that set up free speech zones on campus where when a speaker is coming like, you know, Jordan Peterson or someone else. And─They say, okay, well, if you wanna protest, you have to go onto the pavilion over here in the corner. And that’s where we’re going to allow the protest. I’m like, yeah, that’s not really how it works, right?
Britanny: Yeah, that’s not how it works. Because again, like we just said, you’re allowed to disagree with people.
Connor: So let’s talk about the first amendment. Why do we have a protected right to freedom of speech?
Britanny: Well, and it’s one of the most important. It’s the first one in something called the Bill of Rights. So the Bill of Rights are something, and it’s funny, the founders went back and forth on whether or not to include this because in their minds they thought this was easy. Like of course governments should not infringe on these rights, should not
Britanny: …Cancel Out these rights. But I think it was James Madison.
Connor: Yep. I think, yeah. Who pushed for it? He said another quote, he said, “Bind them by the chains of a constitution,” which is great. Or that was Jefferson, I think…
Britanny: But Madison wanted the Bill of Rights. And he wanted the Bill of Rights because he understood what, what government does. The government is made of humans. And as humans, we are imperfect. And people who are imperfect are sometimes going to twist things for their own gain, right? He knew that the government might, might wanna take away these rights or it might be in their best interest to take away these rights. So the very first amendment in the bill of rights is freedom of speech. And I think that kind of shows you how important it is. Now, all the Bill of Rights, all the amendments in there are very important, but the freedom of speech and the other part of that is also the freedom to assemble, which is what you were just talking about─
Britanny: Connor. That’s the freedom to protest, the freedom to get together with people and say, no, we don’t agree with this. It was so important that it was the first one, the founders added.
Connor: I think it also says, you know, you can petition the government…
Britanny: Yes. ...for redress of, you know, grievances and─
also freedom of association, I believe, too.
Connor: Yeah. So, this is super important. And Brittany, I was, thinking, as you were saying that how amazing it is that we have the Bill of Rights, because as you pointed out, there was this debate of whether it was even needed. Imagine if the other side of that debate won, what the world would look like today, cause in my mind the best parts of the Constitution are like the first amendment…
Connor: …The second amendment, the fourth amendment, right? The having to get a warrant─
Britanny: The fourth is so important.
Connor: Oh my gosh. When you see how the federal government is basically ignoring so much of the constitution. Imagine if we didn’t have those specific provisions where people could go to court and say, well, wait a minute, the fourth amendment or the first amendment says this. You know, as you point out FIRE, the organization is able to challenge this kind of anti-free speech policies at these colleges specifically because of the language in the first amendment, if they had to go to court without the Bill of Rights and say, this is wrong, that the taxpayer-funded college is preventing people from the freedom of speech, the Supreme court would say, well, where in the Constitution does it say that Congress can’t do that? It’s because of the first amendment. So I-I’m just baffled at like that there was this disagreement, there were these people you-you correctly point out that were like, oh no, clearly,
Britanny: We don’t need it.
Connor: We’ve limited, you know, the government enough in this and all of that is obvious. We would just be restating the obvious that, you know, they can’t do these things and, look at, you know, how fortunate it’s been for our country, that they did make the decision to put that in.
Britanny: And there are a lot of countries that don’t have that. I take a lot of Ubers and I meet a lot of Uber drivers from different countries. And one of the things I always ask them is, you know, what do you think of America? What do you think being here? And so many of them tell me how, how great it is to have the freedom of speech because they’re coming from countries where they can’t speak about anything. Not even just governments, they can’t watch movies because they’re because there’s no freedom of speech, right? So you can’t put something out there and have your opinions out there. There’s so many things that we have that we’re very lucky and it because-its because of the Bill of Rights.
Connor: Well, it’s super important to think about and obviously there are boundaries. Just like say with the second amendment in guns, it doesn’t mean you can go shoot people and you know, the constitution doesn’t say that you can harm people with these rights. In fact, the rights are there for you. As long as you’re operating peacefully, the government can’t stop you from acting in the way that you want. So if it’s with a gun, as long as you’re just out hunting or it’s for self-defense, then you should have the right to have a gun. But with free speech, the example is the same. If you are maliciously lying about someone, right? If you’re using your speech to call 911 and give a false tip about, you know, a crime that didn’t really happen, that’s a problem. Or the─
Britanny: Oh, the shouting fire and a theater, I think is the big one, right?
Connor: Yeah. That’s the example you often hear, right? You don’t wanna cause panic and problems like that. But as long as you are not endangering anyone or specifically harming anyone, the first amendment says, Congress can’t make any law about speech. You have the right to express your opinions and even criticize the government. I mean, if you go on social media right now, Brittany, all you see all the time is criticisms of the president, right? And the government and as annoying as that sometimes gets to kind of go through my, you know, social feeds and okay, okay I get it. You all don’t like this and that on the other hand, it’s amazing, right? Because people can just openly express their disgust with the government and still not be punished for that. And I think that’s a net positive.
Britanny: Pretty amazing. Yeah.
Connor: All right. Well until next time, make sure you guys are just subscribed. Use your free speech in great ways today. We’re gonna keep using ours on this podcast. Make sure you share it with your friends and we’ll see you next time. See you later, Brittany!
Britanny: See you, next time!