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Free Speech Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

September 1, 2012

We all know how it goes: a person expresses their obnoxious, offensive, completely unkittenlike ideas in a public forum. There is a vast and snarky Internet backlash. The person’s supporters then crawl anonymously out of the woodwork, Caps Lock keys at the ready, to inform the universe that they live in a FREE COUNTRY where there is FREEDOM OF SPEECH and EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT TO THEIR OPINION.

The problem with these valiant defenders of Liberty, Justice and the American Way is that they usually don’t have a clue what they are talking about, and this can be frustrating for those of us who actually know how to Google the First Amendment. (Why should I, a Canadian, care when these particular Americans make misinformed assumptions about their American constitution, you ask? Because they are crawling all over the Internet, that’s why.) Thus, I have created this handy reference guide to how free speech actually works, which reasonable and informed people can copy/paste at will when they are having a Redhead Moment and their own coherent-response synapses are overloaded by sheer exasperation. Not that I know anything about that.

What Free Speech Is

In the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees you the right to be an opinionated turdmuncher about any subject you want without being fined, jailed, executed, or otherwise disciplined by your government. That is all. That is the sum total of your lawful protections involving the freedom of speech.

What Free Speech Is Not

The First Amendment does not guarantee you the right to be an opinionated turdmuncher without consequences or repercussions of any kind. Let’s break this down a bit further.

1. There are still a few things you can’t do.

Some of these things include threats, obscenity, defamation, and “fighting words” (so next time someone says “Them’s fightin’ words!” you better take that shit seriously). If you happen to be in Canada, Australia, or the UK – lucky you – you can include hate speech on that list.

But even more importantly:

2. There are still a lot of things other people can do when they don’t like what you have to say. These include but are not limited to:

  • expressing their disagreement with you
  • expressing their disagreement with you in a public forum
  • pointing out inconsistencies in your logic
  • carefully dismantling your argument piece by piece
  • calling you names
  • waging a Twitter hashtag campaign against you
  • using their positions of influence to sway people’s opinions about you
  • boycotting your company
  • encouraging others to boycott your company
  • censoring you
  • ignoring you
  • glitterbombing you
  • firing you
  • calling on your employer to fire you
  • calling for your resignation
  • calling on your advertisers to stop supporting you

You may not like these responses, but that does not make them illegal or otherwise Against The Constitution. See, the thing is, these responses are also considered acts of free expression, and they happen to be protected under the very same amendment that protects other people’s bigoted rants and childish ad hominem attacks. I know, it’s a total mindfuck, isn’t it? Those crazy founding fathers decided to protect everyone’s speech, not just the people you happen to agree with.

Let’s have a look at a few examples to see how this works in real life.

Andrew Shirvell has to pay $4.5 million after an extended smear campaign against a gay guy he doesn’t like.

This is not a free speech issue because: He spent like a year using nasty words on his blog to accuse the plaintiff of things like encouraging violence, belonging to the Ku Klux Klan, and recruiting people to the gay lifestyle (which, protip, isn’t a lifestyle and doesn’t work like a Variety Club Telethon). This is defamation, which is another word for lying, and in case you skipped that part is another one of the things listed above that you can’t do.

Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut for using birth control, and advertisers fled his show like rats from a burning ship.

This is not a free speech issue because: Advertisers are not The Government. They can choose when and where they want to advertise, and they don’t have to justify their reasoning to anyone other than their clientele. Choosing to yank their ads from a show they no longer morally support is in fact an act of free expression itself.

People are boycotting Chick-Fil-A for expressing anti-gay views.

This is not a free speech issue because: Ordinary citizens are not The Government. They can collectively decide not to eat wherever they want, for whatever reason they want. The Constitution does not oblige them to eat at fast-food establishments owned by bigots.


City officials can’t prevent Chick-Fil-A from opening up shop in their cities.

This is a free speech issue because: City officials are The Government. They aren’t allowed to stop bigots from doing business just because they disagree with them. And it’s a good thing, too, otherwise lots of gay-friendly businesses would be barred in lots of places.


In conclusion, sometimes people’s First Amendment rights really are infringed upon, and everyone should get upset about that even if they don’t like what those people have to say. But most furiously-capitalized Internet comments about free speech are written by people who should have failed 8th grade Civics. I hope this guide has been helpful in clearing up any lingering confusion.

  1. Terra permalink
    December 3, 2012 10:05 pm

    As a teacher of 8th grade civics (no, really!) can I copy this and give it to all my students to read?

    • Terra permalink
      December 3, 2012 10:06 pm

      Oh, never mind. I see you said I could in your first paragraph or two. My bad; it’s late. :)

      • December 4, 2012 7:21 am

        No problem! Feel free to edit the word “turdmuncher” as you see fit. :)


  1. I won’t have what she’s having Insufferable Intolerance

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