“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.”
“The Constitution of the United States,” Amendment 1
Opinion / Editorial
There are two separate facts that need to be considered about free speech. Free speech is not just a product of the First Amendment. Yes, the Constitution guarantees that free speech will not be abridged by the government, but the very language itself acknowledges an underlying right. You can’t decline to abridge a right that does not exist in the first place.
Speech is a basic function of our humanity. Thinking and language are innate abilities of our species. Certainly, we learn and develop those skills over time, but biologically they exist naturally in humans. As individuals, we own those talents. It is the capacity to use our intellect and our voice that creates one of the most fundamental of human rights; the right to speak freely.
The extent to which a government legally restricts those rights tells us something important about whether the society values that right. Under the guise of government, we carefully pick and choose when to create a restriction. Evidence is presented and weighed. If it presents a legitimate harm, only then is it restricted. The more often we restrict free speech rights, the farther away we are from being a free society. Our freedom to speak can be restricted, or completely repressed, by a government. Even in the most oppressive governments in the world – now and throughout history – people still owned that right whether they knew it or not.
Government is not the only body that can create restrictions on speech. Cultural norms and taboos also play a role. This is an important consideration when we look at the extent to which a culture is friendly to people speaking freely.
I’ve become more cautious when I speak. That’s not because I fear my ideas or I fear government jail. I fear that it’s simply too easy for strangers, casual acquaintances, or “someone that I used to know” to lash out with any number of derogatory labels rather than trying to empathize with the complex viewpoint of another human being. Each of us is the sum of millions of facts and experiences we’ve accumulated, and that can’t be expressed in 140 characters or a few paragraphs. Any one particular viewpoint does not define us. Yet, people have faced significant cultural consequences for speaking something that some group finds unacceptable. It’s no wonder people are reticent to speak freely.
Even this post barely scratches the surface. Don’t assume that this is everything I think about this topic, because it’s not. Don’t assume that because I didn’t say it here, that I am not cognizant of other aspects. It’s a big topic. Don’t take offense based on what you assume is a reason that something is not on this page.
The right to free speech exists whether a government or a People are friendly to it. Be friendly to it. Being friendly does not mean liking everything everyone says. Valuing that right means we have to acknowledge that other viewpoints exist. It means at least trying to understand what really drives your fellow human beings. It means having empathy. Be friendly to it because someday they may come for something you say.