In the course of this class so far, I’ve been most interested in discovering how vital the First Amendment, more specifically the freedom of speech clause, really is to the integrity of the American system. I’d always been aware of each citizen’s right to speak freely based on the Constitution’s prohibition of “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and knew that as a general rule anyone could say or write whatever they desired. However, it did not occur to me until I began this class just how complex this aspect of the First Amendment is, or just how perfectly the idea of free speech encompasses our fundamental views of government in this country.
In contrast to my initial understanding of the First Amendment, the freedom of speech does not prevent what is known as hateful speech. The amendment is specifically designed to permit that any type of speech that is not expected to incite violence. Although many developed countries around the world, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, have made hateful speech illegal with a penalty of a fine or jail time, the United States has held firm to its belief that speech will be entirely free and unregulated unless it leads to violence. Unlike other countries, our freedom of speech rule does not conform to any sort of societal code or etiquette.
This strong adherence to such an open-ended decree has set the stage for quite a few instances of rather unappealing and inappropriate forms of speech being upheld by the Supreme Court based on the First Amendment. For example, in 1977 a group of American Nazis was allowed by the Supreme Court to march through an area with a large Jewish community in Skokie, Illinois (Wilson). Even when Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg was arrested for “advocating” violence with his hateful words against the African American and Jewish communities, the Supreme Court overturned his arrest because he only generally advocated violence rather than directly calling a group to “imminent lawless action” (Wilson). Freedom of speech laws in the United States also make it exceedingly difficult for public figures to win a libel lawsuit, seeing as even if they can prove that the published content was false and damaging (the criteria for standard libel suits), they must also prove that it was published with “actual malice” (Wilson).
Based on these examples of freedom of speech being used in a way that isn’t exactly constructive or makes it harder to gain compensation for certain wrongdoings, one might initially harbor negative feelings toward the leeway allowed by the First Amendment, just as I did when I first encountered these stories. But with a closer look at the motives behind this amendment and further reflection, in time I came to appreciate freedom of speech for the truly beneficial aspects it offers to our American society.
Our country’s adherence to the First Amendment stands as a testament to just how open and trusting our government is. Legislators are forbidden from setting down primitive laws dictating what one can or cannot say, giving the American people total control over a key aspect of life. This power in the hands of the people leaves the government vulnerable, as they willingly give up a hugely influence tool of control in favor of the liberty of their citizens. The government must trust the people not to abuse their First Amendment right and to use it as a tool for good rather than for evil. In addition, some ethical aspects of society are legally mandated, such as the illegality of murder or theft; but in the case of speech, morals are more relative and individual. Our country was not designed to mandate how individuals live their private lives, and the first and arguably most famous amendment to the Constitution exemplifies this fundamental belief.
Freedom of speech is part of our American identity and really a major factor of what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Whether everyone agrees with the individual choices of others to exercise this right is entirely subjective and a personal decision. Even if someone is offended by another’s speech and does not believe the other person should have uttered their offensive comment, both parties are entitled to the right to express their opinions and neither can have their voices muted unless they provoke violence. The ambiguity of the First Amendment may allow for some less than favorable statements to slip through the cracks, but all in all the amendment ensures each citizen’s ability to express ideas that may go against the government’s decrees or the status quo of society. Statements that could not have been made under a stricter system but were permitted because of our nation’s freedom of speech have been a strong factor in the social progress of the past, and will surely continue to allow positive change in the future.
United States Constitution, Amendment I
Wilson, James Q. “Civil Liberties.” American Government: Institutions and Policies. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1986. 112-13. Print.
Title inspired by the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb