Freedom of speech: The First Amendment
The Freedom of Speech is one of the most powerful amendments that we have as apart of the United States Constitution. Without this right many ideas, beliefs and inventions would not exist today and the majority of the society would be left in ignorance. This right is given to all American citizens and allows them to speak their minds, beliefs and ideas to anybody of people that are willing to listen to them. Though Freedom of Speech is considered a general terms that applies to all forms of speech, there are a few exceptions to the rule.
Limitations on the First Amendment
The First Amendment is very powerful and has the ability to promote, protect and even destroy and harm. This power has to have some checks and balances associated with that allow for a somewhat peaceful interaction between American citizens. Slander, libel, obscenity,sedition, copyright infringement and revelation of classified knowledge don’t fall under the umbrella of the First Amendment. Acts of libel are speaking or writing things that defame the name of a person or business. Slander is usually spoken while libel can either be written or spoken. Obscenity is a action or statement made that goes against the moral fiber of the society for a certain time. Sedition is verbal or physical resistance of authority figures and those in office, some of these actions and words can actually cause pandemonium within the American people.
Looking Deeper at the First Amendment
Delegating and regulating the First Amendment is like trying to dive and swim through murky water. This is a very hard thing for most judicial powers to do, as there are so many ways that a letter, speech or spoken word can be taken. In reality acts of sedition and libel occur everyday, but the majority of them are not enforced by law enforcement because of the obvious implications of it. Imagine if everyone who committed libel were locked up. The jail houses would be filled to the brim with convicts and those who were found guilty of speaking out of term.
Aside for the restrictions placed on the first amendment there are other rights that go along with the first amendment that Americans make use of. Under the First Amendment you have the right to search for information and ideas, receive information and the right to pass on information to whoever is willing. These rights are especially important and fundamental to the American way of life. Freedom is not freedom without the right to expressing yourself freely. Freedom of expression transcends simple print and goes all that way towards the information found on the internet. In reality this right is tied with nearly all the other rights and freedoms found in the constitution. Imagine life without this right, there would be no Facebook, Myspace or social networking sites. Every book, magazine and novel would go through a rigorous screening process. Finally information would be stifled some events and news would not even be known about if it weren’t for the First Amendment.
Censorship and the First Amendment - The American Citizen’s Right to Free
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Adopted in 1791, the First Amendment, states that “Congress shall make no law 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.” (Pilon, p. 13) The freedom of speech documented in the First Amendment is not only a constitutional protection, but also an inevitable part of democratic government and independence, which are essential values in our society. “Censorship,” according to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is an almost irresistible impulse when you know you are right” (Sunstein, p. 25). That is why the American citizen’s right to free speech is should be held as the highest virtue and any censorship of freedom of speech should not be allowed, but only respected.
Freedom of speech is essential part of democratic government, because the only way truth can emerge is when there is an open competition of ideas. However, there is a strong support of censorship when people start mentioning extremely offensive opinions. Should the freedom of speech be limited in this case? The answer is “No”. “If liberty means anything at all,” writes George Orwell, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” (Cox, p. 36) If we want to enjoy the freedom fully, the full protection should be given to the freedom of speech; there are no compromises about it.
Freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment is not just a right, which can be declared or abolished. According to the “liberty theory”, proposed by some legal scholars, freedom of speech is an essential part of the liberty of every person, who pursues an individual self-determination and self-realization (Cox, 1981). Thus, freedom of speech is also a part more global right to freedom of personal development and self-expression.
Another theoretical ground to support the freedom of speech is called “tolerance theory”. It holds that the ability to teach and promote tolerance is one of the most important assets of freedom of speech (Cox, 1981). From this perspective, freedom of speech itself excludes any type of intolerance, which sometimes appears in a threatening form (religious intolerance, racial intolerance. The “tolerance theory” implies self-restraint, which is the only appropriate response to any ideas, even those that we may personally dislike or hate. The “tolerance theory” provides a broader context for exercising tolerance in a conflict-ridden democratic society.
In legal practice there are certain restrictions on freedom of speech imposed by the Supreme Court. They define a few categories of speech, which are considered to be not fully protected by the First Amendment. These categories include defamation, advocacy of imminent illegal conduct, obscenity and fraudulent misrepresentation (Farber, 1998). However, if the speech doesn’t fall within one of these categories, there are no grounds for the government to argue that freedom of speech should be restricted because of its harmful content.
One of the common bases for partial censorship is proof that the freedom of speech causes imminent illegal action. The Supreme Court has already drawn a careful line between general abstract theories and political dissent on one hand and particular illegal acts incitement on the other. This line is drawn by definition of “clear and present danger” test (Farber, 1998). The government cannot sue the speech on the basis of its tendency or possibility illegal conduct incitement. Before any speech is punished on the grounds of incitement, there is an obligatory three-part criterion that should be met. First, the speech must directly incite lawless action. Second, the context of speech must imply imminent breaking of the law, rather than call for illegal conduct at some indefinite future time. At last, there should be a strong intention to produce such conduct(Farber, 1998).
Such “clear and present danger” test determines the level of probability of threat imposed by the speech in question. However, the actual evil, which the government tries to prevent by outlawing the advocacy, does not outweigh the harm of outlawing the free speech. Only when the imposed danger becomes evident, the freedom of speech may be questioned. But we must be aware that the price for preventing several cases of the openly declared illegal conduct may be paid by restriction of one of the most essential rights that constitute freedom for the entire nation.
For the wellbeing and public safety the Supreme Court has imposed certain regulations on the freedom of speech not because of its content, but because of the time, place and manner the speech is being expressed (Farber, 1998). However, these rules do not limit the actual freedom of speech and are not even upheld, if there is no public need for this.
However, when it comes to the content-neutral regulation, it raises many controversial issues. The content-neutral regulation requires a very careful distinction and therefore may sometimes be misinterpreted. There is a raising concern that such regulation may weaken people’s right to participate, especially if the government puts too many restrictions on how the ideas should be voiced.
Thus, by analyzing the current issues concerning the First Amendment right to free speech in the United States, I wanted to show the perspective of outlawing this right and the negative aspects that such outlawing may involve. Freedom of speech has served a crucial role for the right to dissent and for the entire principle of democracy in our society. This law was developed during the course of American history and only after numerous struggles it was achieved. The evolution of this law is still in progress, however, the limitation of the basic right to free speech may as well limit our freedom and democracy, therefore should be respected and protected.
Cox, A. Freedom of Expression. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981.
Farber, D. The First Amendment. NY: Foundation Press, 1998.
Pilon, Roger. (Preface) The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Cato Institute, 2000.
Sunstein, C. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. NY: Free Press, 1993.
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