Freedom of Speech in America – Just what is legal?
Much has been written and discussed recently about freedom of speech in the United States. For those who missed a few days in the fifth grade and for others who may be distracted by misinformation on social media, here is a primer on freedom of speech, how it relates to “hate speech”, the internet, and what is and isn’t criminally punishable in the United States.
The Constitution and The Bill of Rights
The original U.S. Constitution was written to outline the powers of the United States government following the revolutionary war. Keep in mind, this document was written in a time when a young United States was emerging from a war against the tyranny from a foreign government. There were those that had concerns that while the Constitution provided an outline for the government, it had no protections for the rights of its citizens. Before the Constitution was ratified, therefore, there were twelve amendments to the Constitution proposed to go along with it. Ten of those twelve received the necessary three-quarters approval of Congress and were passed as the “Bill of Rights”.
Many people think that freedom of speech is its own amendment. In reality, it is part of the first amendment that also protects freedom of religion, the right of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to petition the government during a grievance. Freedom of speech is, of course, a key point in protecting these other freedoms.
The first amendment specifically states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Bill of Rights only defines one crime, the crime of treason in Article 3. It doesn’t define hate speech as a crime.