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The Soapbox

Free Speech: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I’m going to preface this post with the disclaimer that I’m not a Constitutional scholar, though I’ve played one on Twitter. But I have read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights front to back, and I keep a copy near my desk for reference. Comes with being a Poli Sci major. And a major civics geek.

My favorite amendment* to the Constitution is the first one, because it’s the Freedom of Speech protection that makes it possible for me to write this blog post without fear of recrimination from my government. In fact, I can even write something like “President Obama is a big fat doody-head”, and (presumably) I won’t have to worry about federal agents whisking me out of the pick-up lane at school and sticking me in a Gitmo prison.

(I say “presumably” because there are certain concerns over the Patriot Act and other clandestine policies of the U.S. government that they abridge our Constitutional protections in service of the War on Terror. So before I hear the low-frequency buzz of a drone over my backyard, I will clarify that I do not now nor have I ever believed President Obama to be a big fat doody-head.)

Getting back on point—the First Amendment is intended to protect individuals (and apparently corporations, too) from government sanctions on speech:

There are, of course, some exceptions to the “free speech” rule. You cannot endanger the public while exercising your right to speak (the old “You can’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded movie theater” exception). You also cannot make threats, nor incite others to violence, and there are limits on the lies you can spread about others and the smut you may propagate. The First Amendment holds so many nuanced interpretations that it’s nearly impossible to consider it a cut-and-dried matter.

Except when those who want to speak inappropriately about their employers, friends, teachers, etc. without any consequence use the argument of “Free Speech”.

What some folks seem to forget is that the First Amendment is a protection from the government—not from your employer, your peers, your parents, etc. Case in point: Deb Ng recently published a great blog post about the ill-conceived idea of creating a Twitter account to complain about and mock customers of a certain supermarket chain. She didn’t take issue that someone felt the need to create a place on the web to vent and commiserate with other employees of this store; she took issue (rightfully so) with the way the Twitter account used the supermarket’s logo on their profile, as well as how they not only specifically identified the business, but many posting to this account with their own stories used their actual identities. Not only does this put the supermarket in a bad light, but it endangers the jobs of those careless enough to participate in the online bitch fest. Many of those taking umbrage with her post cite their right to “free speech”.


I have seen this all too often on the web. Many Americans feel they can say whatever they like because we enjoy protected speech. Guess what? It only applies to the government! Your employer can—and should—fire your butt if your speech reflects poorly on their business. This happened recently during the Chik-Fil-A debacle. An executive with a small medical technology firm decided to express his support of the Chik-Fil-A protestors by videotaping himself haranguing a young CFA employee in the drive-thru. His actions were not illegal, but they were troublesome. His company terminated him for conduct unbecoming an executive of his caliber. His actions reflected poorly on his employer, and his employer did what they had to do to protect their brand.

Now, there are some instances when it may not be legal for a company to terminate their employees for their speech, e.g. political speech, whistleblowing, or communicating concerns about low wages or unfair labor practices. But bad-mouthing the business you work for or your customers and clients? Embarrassing them or doing harm to their brand? Not protected speech, just plain stupid.

What we can take away from this is a maxim that I abide by:

Just because you have the right to do it, doesn’t make it right to do. 

Think before you speak. Don’t trivialize our precious First Amendment by wrapping the flag around you just because you think it’s your right to complain about your boss.

What are your thoughts? Do people take the “free speech” argument too far?

*I’m also partial to the 14th Amendment, but it’s obviously not well understood, or else we wouldn’t have needed a 19th Amendment nor a Civil Rights Act, and there still wouldn’t be arguments for an Equal Rights Amendment.

About Cate Tayler

Mom, Wife, Writer, Catholic, Thinker, Reader, Amateur Gourmand, 'Phins Fan, Superwoman--not always in that order. Fueled by passion and too much caffeine. Lost my cape--it's buried somewhere under that mountain of laundry. Once I find it, look out world!


5 thoughts on “Free Speech: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

  1. Thank you. There are so many issues involved in this topic but you have managed to hit on one of the main problems. I would add that it is also a matter of everyone being so insistent on their right to speak they have forgotten of our obligation to listen to what is being said. I honestly don’t think anyone hears what the other person is saying in so many issues.
    Perhaps it comes down to a matter of respect for the person?
    But that is another story. Thank you again. I don’t feel quite so alone out here anymore. If that makes any sense.

    Posted by maureen | September 3, 2012, 19:06
    • Yes, Maureen, exactly! Many people forget how to listen. I’ve seen many heated discussions on the internet where the parties involved are actually in agreement, but they’re reacting based on assumptions of what the other person is saying. I wonder if it’s a by-product of our digital world, where for the most part, we are all just usernames on the computer. It’s easy to forget that it’s a real, living person on the other side of the screen, deserving of basic human respect.

      ‘Course, our current political arena doesn’t lend itself to much mutual respect. Just take a look at the campaign ads and the commentary from so-called political entertainers.


      Posted by A Common Sea | September 4, 2012, 09:38
  2. Thank you for this clarification. I’ve always thought people are too bratty about this, thinking they can say whatever, insult whomever and then claim “free speech.” It makes perfect sense that the true article is about protection from the gov’t. I loved reading. Feel free to break down the constitution for us in the future. 🙂

    Posted by Mare | September 4, 2012, 11:46
    • I don’t think you want to get me started on what I think about the Second Amendment! LOL

      You’re right, though. Some people don’t want to take personal responsibility for their actions, and would rather hide behind their “rights”. Sometimes we forget that while something might be legal, it’s not necessarily ethical or moral, or even just the right thing to do.


      Posted by A Common Sea | September 4, 2012, 22:06
  3. Yes, listening is something we all need to work on! Well written!

    Posted by Lu | September 11, 2012, 13:47

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