What You Can Say in the USA

Joel Sikora, Contributing Writer

I’ve always felt that it is best for me to keep my opinions to myself. The way I see it, folks already hear plenty of opinions every day, and adding mine would do nothing but add more complication to a person’s already-complicated life. The only opinions I like to express are ones that hold little importance in society. “I prefer cats to dogs,” or “I enjoy peanut butter and jelly separately, but much less when combined.” That sort of thing. As an individual who knows little to nothing about any political matters, however, it makes sense for me to refrain from expressing any thoughts on I may have on those topics. Lately, it seems that a number of people feel that it is somehow their duty to provide serious social commentary. Does the world really need our two cents on every issue? For some people, the answer is yes. The President, for example, as a head of state and government, is a voice that is of great importance to the country and the world. But for the many people one encounters on any given day, repeating the same statement or argument that was made on the news the night before (or, more realistically, trending on social media)? I feel that their voices hold much less value.

Much to my chagrin, in the eyes of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, these people have just as much of a right to voice their opinions as the President does, however controversial or banal they may be. Much to my delight, this means I am free to write this editorial. Some people, however, may be unaware of what is covered by the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech Clause. While this freedom is utilized every day, it is sometimes misunderstood. What forms of speech are not protected under the first amendment? One topic that has been a subject of debate is hate speech. While some feel that hate speech is an important segment of our speech freedoms, others believe that it is not as significant to protect. A 2020 Freedom Forum report found that 36% felt that it was important to prevent hate speech and 24% felt it should be outlawed. The limits of what hate speech is protected is defined by Supreme Court cases. The first notable case is Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), in which it was determined that “fighting words” which inflict or incite violence or injury are not protected under the first amendment. These limitations have been more narrowly defined in subsequent cases where symbolic speech was found to be protected or, in the case of cross burning, not protected. This of course, is just one example.

Also unclear to many is that this clause protects forms of expression, however controversial they may be. This applies to the symbolic imagery, including expressions such as flag burning. The aforementioned Freedom Forum report also found that 53% of Americans know that flag burning is protected under the first amendment, leaving a little under half who think it is not. Burning a draft card, however, would not be protected, as it would be seen as acting against the government’s interests. Lying under oath during a trial is not protected speech, as it is a federal crime. Federal law and policy often overlaps with the right of free speech. This does not In the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines symbolic imagery was challenged when a principal suspended students in a public school over their wearing of black arm bands in protest against the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 majority, that this form of speech was protected, even when in school. Other cases involving schools found that students do not have the right to print articles in a school-run newspaper, advocate illegal drug use, or make an obscene speech at school-sponsored events.

Clearly, there are very few examples of speech that is not protected under the first amendment. With this in mind, we can be assured that most everything said by people on a daily basis is protected under the first amendment. Even people like myself, who believes some people would be better off if they kept their mouths shut, must admit that these people still have the right to say what they want, as long as they don’t cross the boundaries set by the Supreme Court.