Every so often, a story in the news prompts people to cry “Free speech!” while frantically waving around the First Amendment of the Constitution and fuming about fascism. Such stories are usually about someone saying something heinous and facing some kind of social consequence for it.
As if revoking someone’s college admission over their use of racial slurs is the same as the government outlawing such speech.
As if refusing to do business with someone because they said something disgusting is tyranny run amok.
As if kicking someone off a privately held social media platform for bigoted ranting is unconstitutional.
As if people should be able to say anything they want without any consequences whatsoever.
But that’s not what the First Amendment says. What is says is this:
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.
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.
That means the government can’t outlaw certain kinds of speech.
It doesn’t mean that a business can’t disallow certain kinds of speech.
It doesn’t mean that an educational institution can’t condemn racist speech and decide to include it in their assessment of a prospective student.
It doesn’t mean that people can say anything they want without social, economic, or political repercussions.
It doesn’t mean that people have to be given a forum, platform, or space to speak their mind.
It doesn’t mean that you can say anything you want, anywhere you want, anytime you want without any consequence whatsoever.
Unless the government or some entity of the state is telling you that you can’t speak your mind on your own private property or in a public space (as long as you aren’t using obscenities or inciting illegal activity) then your free speech is always 100% intact. Even if a venue says, “No, you can’t take the stage here.” Even if a social media site says, “No, you can’t have a profile here.” Even if a television station says, “No, you can’t have a show here.” Even if a private institution says, “No, you can’t be a student here.”
Even if those things happen because you were saying things deemed offensive or harmful, that’s still not a violation of your free speech, because the government is not legally mandating your shut down.
Words have consequences. Our Constitution protects our speech from government intervention, but it doesn’t protect our speech from each other.
If you want to say awful, ugly things, you won’t get arrested for it in the U.S. But you will get shut down by your fellow Americans, and you should be.
Stop whining shouting “Free speech!” when people say something ignorant or racist or bigoted and get called out or boxed out or shut out because of it. None of those things are a violation of free speech. That’s just life in a free country.