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Freedom of Speech in the United States

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees American citizens five essential freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. The second freedom, the right to free speech, is one of the most important and greatly debated subjects of the Bill of Rights. The Freedom of Speech gives citizens the right to express themselves without fear of punishment or retaliation…within limits.

What Does Freedom of Speech Mean?

Freedom of Speech is a fundamental American right, promised in the First Amendment. In Palko v. Connecticut, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo said this freedom is the “matrix, the indispensable condition” of all other forms of freedom. The free speech clause joined the Bill of Rights in 1791. The initial version introduced to the House of Representatives stated that the government shall not deprive or abridge the people’s right to speak, write, or otherwise express their sentiments. 

Freedom of Speech gives citizens the right to express themselves using almost any words, without government interference, censorship, or punishment. This right is vital, as it allows citizens to form and express their own opinions. The other freedoms in the First Amendment give citizens the right to speak their minds in the form of published press, peaceful assemblies to discuss the law, and petitions asking the government to address grievances. Americans inherently have these rights, and may freely speak their minds without fear of negative consequences. 

What Type of Speech Is Protected by the First Amendment?

The First Amendment right to free speech includes the right not to speak, the right not to salute the flag, the right to use offensive words and phrases, the right to advertise, and the right to engage in symbolic speech. Citizens have the right not to say anything, as well as not to express their loyalty to the United States, if desired. Citizens also have the right to express themselves by taking actions to show what they think or believe. This includes the right to burn the flag and sit during the pledge of allegiance. The right to display symbols, wear clothes that send a message, and create or share media also fall under the Freedom of Speech.

What Type of Speech Is Not Protected?

 In the beginning, First Amendment rights mainly applied to laws passed by Congress. Over time, however, Supreme Court rulings held that the rights were applicable to laws passed by the individual states. As the First Amendment grew in importance over the years, it underwent a few changes and alterations. These changes, arising mostly from court cases involving the Bill of Rights, include some rules and restrictions over citizens’ basic freedoms. Although still broad in its protection of U.S. citizens, the First Amendment is not an all-encompassing document that lets citizens say or publish anything they want.

Today, the First Amendment does not protect some types of speech or expression. It does not protect any true threats of violence, nor speech that is likely to provoke violence. Obscene speech or expressions, such as child pornography, are also unprotected. The First Amendment also does not apply to defamation, perjury, plagiarism, treason, blackmail, solicitations to commit crimes, and any expression that incites lawless action. Furthermore, the government has the right to censor and restrict commercial speech more than personal speech, mainly to protect the public from false advertising.

Can You Be Fired for Freedom of Speech?

In addition to types of expression the First Amendment does not protect, citizens also face limits on free speech in private homes and privately owned workplaces. Private parties reserve the right to restrict the types of speech they allow in their homes or businesses. This means employees must follow their employer’s rules for free speech, rather than rely solely on the First Amendment’s interpretation. Otherwise, employers may have the right to terminate an employee who speaks or acts outside of workplace rules.                                     

Employees do retain some rights to freedom of speech at work, however. Employers cannot restrict free speech or freedom of expression in a way that violates discrimination laws. Employers cannot fire an employee for religious expression, for example, or for blowing the whistle on illegal activity within the workplace. While workers must obey the regulations of employee handbooks, they still have the right to a workplace that is free from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.