The First Amendment protects your freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. However, in some instances, law enforcement has the right to restrict what, when, where, and how you exercise those freedoms.
The right to express your opinions without governmental interference is an ideal that dates back to ancient Greece. Freedom of speech, as outlined in the 1st Amendment (Religion and Expression), is a fundamental pillar of the Constitution and protects all forms of communication, including art, music, and other media. While free speech is a guaranteed right, it is not absolute.
The Constitution does not specify the constraints of free speech, leaving the courts to define what types of speech should and should not be protected. Some forms of speech are not always protected by the 1st Amendment (Religion and Expression), including:
Incitement involves encouraging another person or groups of people to commit a crime. For example, telling a group of fellow protestors to break into a building or vandalize a car.
Defamation describes the act of injuring another person’s reputation by making false claims — it may take the form of libel (written statements) or slander (spoken statements). For example, creating and speaking harmful lies about something.
Fraud involves using intentional deception for personal gain. For example, convincing someone to give you their credit card information.
Obscenity can be challenging to define, but typically describes the act of using lewd or patently offensive language or images (including child pornography). This is decided by the individual court and/or case and will vary constantly.
Fighting words are phrases that indicate a willingness to fight or challenge a person or group of people. Aggressive vocabulary that directly promotes violence is not protected under your freedom of speech.
Threats involve declaring the intent to harm another person or group of people. Similar to “Fighting Words” — promoting violence against others is not protected under your freedom of speech.
The examples above illustrate instances in which law enforcement can limit what you say. In other instances, the police can limit when, where, and how you say it. For example, law enforcement has the right to prohibit protests during specific times of the day or in specific areas of the community. Check with your local government to understand your regulations on protesting and activism to make sure you are not in violation of local laws.
Questions & Answers
When does my right to free speech apply?
- Generally, your rights to free speech kick in anytime the government acts to curb your ability to express yourself verbally or otherwise.
Does it apply during private conversations? Or just public?
- The protections really provide protection against unnecessary government censorship. So, it doesn’t apply to the conversations you have at the dinner table with family and friends.
What about “misinformation” on social media and the news?
- How does this fall under freedom of speech?