What does freedom of speech mean? We all have the ability to say or express whatever we want to in any country. However, there are varying degrees of repercussions and consequences within the legal system of various governments. In the U.S., the First Amendment addresses our rights, within our country, to exercise freedom of speech. “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 grievance.” Generally speaking, the “abridging the freedom of speech” portion of this Amendment means that “the government may not jail, fine or impose civil liability on people or organizations based on what they say or write except in exceptional circumstances.” www.constitutioncenter.org.
The U.S. Supreme Court has sometimes had to struggle with what constitutes protected speech and what falls within those exceptional circumstances. There have been many legal cases throughout the years to determine what freedom of speech includes and what it does not include. Some of these cases can be found on www.uscourts.gov. With all liberties come responsibility and consequences. If freedom of speech is not used wisely and thoughtfully, people can be harmed and this very freedom we gratefully embrace can be used to oppress and destroy.
So, why is freedom of speech so important? Our nation’s government was set up to be representative of the people therein. It was supposed to be, as expressed by Abraham Lincoln, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That the people of our United States have a voice to express their views, ideas and concerns without the fear of being censored or persecuted is imperative to the liberties that we hold dear in our country.
I don’t know about you, but I have been astounded and very concerned about the stripping away of this freedom that has been evidenced over the last year. It seems that more and more, people are being censored and persecuted if their expressions do not line up with those who disagree. Just over the last month, people have been publicly vilified, physically attacked, lost their jobs, or banned from social media. Some social media platforms have been shut out and shut down, and friends, and even family, have turned on each other all because of what was said or expressed.
People used to be able to agree to disagree, but it seems not anymore. Today it seems it is “my way or the highway.” In fact, it is through the sharing and expression of different ideas and thoughts that we learn and grow. It is so important for all people to be able to express their ideas, thoughts and opinions, but to do it with a measure of kindness and consideration. We need to learn to listen if we want to also be heard. We need more communication and less confrontation.
Any privilege can be used for good or evil. Freedom of speech is a privilege, but only if used to build up, not tear down our country, cities, families and friends. I love the advice that Paul gave in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” I think if we applied this same criteria to freedom of speech, we would see a change in ourselves and in our country.
So how do we practice our freedom to voice our ideas and opinions while at the same time respecting those of others?
Be aware of your audience and how they might receive and respond to what you want to say.
Understand what you believe about what you are standing for and why you believe it.
Be aware of how you process and respond to ideas that differ from your own.
Try to understand where the other person is coming from.
Be aware of your rights under the federal and your state Constitutions.
Be willing to listen and consider before you speak.
Choose your words carefully and use language that encourages and builds up instead of offends and tears down.
Take responsibility for what you say and do.
Never take your freedoms for granted. Stand up for them with respect and enjoy them with discernment and wisdom.