Monday, April 27, 2015

Free Speech

I am constantly amazed at the public’s overgeneralization of what First Amendment free speech.  They seem to think it gives you the right to say whatever you want without consequence.

·         Comment on Twitter, free speech, and harassment.  A commenter said that because we have freedom of speech, Twitter can’t prohibit harassing speech on its service.  As a private organization, Twitter can restrict any speech they want.  They may face public backlash (which is also free speech), but it would not violate First Amendment free speech.
·         A sports reporter made a comment on one of his social media feeds that supported a very controversial military event from World War II.  He was fired.  Supporters claimed that his free speech rights were violated by the broadcaster.  Not true.  It is true that he has the free speech right to make the statement and be free from criminal or civil prosecution.  But that is where it ends.  As a private organization, the broadcaster has the freedom not to employ him. His employment contract could add additional rights or limitations, but that is not free speech that is contract law. Different thing all together.

I am not a constitutional law expert, but the basics are not that complicated. 

First Amendment free speech gives you the right to say whatever you want on your own property or on public property. There are some very restricted limitations based on safety (shouting “fire” in a theater, making direct and immediate threats “I am going to punch you right now, right here”, or speaking in a way that interferes with other peoples’ rights such as creating a disturbance).  But you have the right to be as racist, sexist, homophobic, agist, bigoted jackass as you want.  The government cannot prosecute you criminally or civilly.

But on private property, the owner also has rights.  They have the right not to allow you on their premises.  They have the right not to do business with you.  They have the right not to employ you. None of this violates your First Amendment free speech rights.  Twitter’s service is private property so they can exclude users who post speech they don’t like. The broadcaster’s company is private (even publicly traded corporations) so they can exclude people from employment due to their speech.  This is a whole different thing.

In places like Europe, there are hate speech laws which constrain this right.  In more authoritarian countries they have lots of additional constraints (e.g. the great censorship wall of China).  But in the US, we have what I think is the most free of free speech rights.  But that doesn’t mean that speech is without consequence.