Terry Manning

Freedom of speech is — and isn’t — for everyone


The marriage counselor explained I was caught in what she deemed a “lose-lose” situation.

When asked, “Honey, do these pants make me look heavy?” I could either lie to my wife and be untrue to myself, or I could tell the truth and sleep alone. If you didn’t already know, I can tell you, a cold bed will take the edge off even the sharpest tongue.

I say this to make the point that most people know there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. So why do people keep pretending they don’t know that? Either civics education in this country is woefully inadequate to help people understand what speech the First Amendment does — and doesn’t — protect or a lot of people who should know better are out here lying to keep the masses stirred up.

First, let’s look at what the First Amendment actually says, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“In the United States, freedom of speech and expression is strongly protected from government restrictions by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, many state constitutions, and state and federal laws. Freedom of speech, also called free speech, means the free and public expression of opinions without censorship, interference and restraint by the government.”

Wikipedia is not a source I would normally quote, but it offers a nice summary of the fact the amendment is intended to be a firewall from punitive action initiated by the government.

Not from actions initiated by the owner of the privately owned company where you work, who heard you calling him a tightwad or worse — especially in an at-will state like South Carolina.

Not from being banned by the social media platform where you posted right-wing talking points and racist images. (You weren’t “canceled,” Ye (Kanye? Mr. West?), you were banned for posting stuff you were warned not to post)

Not from advertisers choosing to withhold revenue from social media platforms that publicly announce they are abandoning content moderation. Who wants their bread-and-butter products posted in the middle of a racist flame war?

And not from an angry wife you described as “bootylicious,” no matter how well intentioned you might have been. (Ahem) But I digress.

The First Amendment protects American citizens from the government, but even then there are exceptions.

The Freedom Forum Institute lists these categories on its website: Obscenity. Fighting words. Defamation. Child pornography. Perjury. Blackmail. True threats. Incitement to imminent lawless action. Solicitations to commit crime. (Those last few make you wonder how some folks have managed to stay out of prison long enough to be running for president again, huh?)

The First Amendment doesn’t protect you if your speech falls under any of these. And, as the site notes, “Some experts also would add treason, if committed verbally, to that list.” (How is you-know-who still free? Goodness!)

Now, none of these are surprises to me and neither should they be surprises to most people who call themselves “free-thinking patriots.” But a lot of people act like they have no idea what freedom of speech is and isn’t.

They take to the airwaves and go online talking all kinds of crazy about how sensible moderation of speech is some kind of liberal scheme to destroy the country and people should take up arms to defend themselves from tyranny like during the Revolutionary War and, and, and … It never occurs to these rabble rousers the outlets they use to say this stuff exist because they actually do still have freedom of speech.

I could make an argument that some of their “free speech” actually has been ruinous for the country as a whole and deserves to be prohibited. These folks want the power of freedom, but don’t want to accept any kind of responsibility for that power.

Maybe I’ll make that case in another column.

As somebody who writes on a regular basis for the public arena, as a former journalist of 20 years, and as an engaged citizen of the United States of America, I don’t want government prohibition of speech. But I also understand no one has the right to say anything and everything in all circumstances without fear of consequences.

It’s not protected by the Constitution. It’s not protected by the First Amendment. It’s not even smart.

Which might explain why so many dumb people keep saying otherwise.

Terry E. Manning is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.

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