“First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end. The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.” – Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
“Think before you speak.” – Mom
Regular adherence to that bit of maternal wisdom would save many of us a lot of angst. Nevertheless, Americans’ right to free speech is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It is foundational to democracy. “Congress shall make no law…” The Constitution gives us broad leeway to criticize our government, to protest, proselytize, question, rage – even lie or say vile, hateful things. We are not, however, immune to the consequences of our speech. Words have wrecked careers, marriages, reputations and lives.
Americans, cannot, in fact, say anything they want about another person – not without risking a lawsuit. Libel laws allow individuals whose reputations are damaged by false published statements to seek monetary compensation for that damage. Sarah Palin recently sued The New York Times on those grounds. She lost, but public figures have to prove that the person or entity making false statements acted with actual malice. Private individuals need only prove negligence. It’s a lower bar because ordinary people have the most to lose and the least recourse to defend themselves. Opinion is not an excuse for statements that are provably false.
There are other serious repercussions for certain speech. Use your words to threaten someone, and you could be arrested. Disseminating child pornography is not freedom of expression. Employers may fire you for calling your co-workers names. Schools can control what is acceptable in the classroom.
But mostly, Americans in their personal lives are free to say whatever they want. It’s both a privilege and the price we pay for a marketplace of ideas free from government interference. Critical thinking is key to participating in that marketplace.
Those who make wild accusations without the proof to back them up do not care about the truth. They care about reinforcing their own ideas. They want their voices to rise above the din. We the people do not have to listen.