The Constitution of the United States states in its First Amendment that “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” (Funk & Wagnalls 162). This Amendment guarantees each person of free speech. Does this mean that a person can stand in the middle of the street and yell anything he wants? No, society, even though it cherishes freedom of speech, does give this freedom certain restrictions.
Why does society find it necessary to restrict freedom of speech? Does this ensure a more controlled society? Let us imagine a society that has no restrictions of speech. For example, anyone can publish a false story of another person, just for revenge perhaps, and the offended person would not be able to defend himself because there is no restriction of speech. A neighbor in a residential area decides to use a loud microphone to announce his beliefs in the middle of the night, and wakes everybody up. Because that person has every right to speak, nobody can do anything. Even though this is “freedom of speech” it is not allowed in a civilized society.
Free speech is a very controversial issue because who is really the one to decide what can or cannot be expressed. The freedoms stated in the First Amendment have been controlled for the protection of the people. As in the examples mentioned above a person does not have the right to disturb the peace of others just because he has the “right” to express himself. The case Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire stated that there are some classes of speech that are limited. They are the lewd, the obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting words. When spoken they encourage fighting and so is a disturbance of peace (Stone, Seidman). Therefore, the courts have created laws that will protect a person against libel and slander.
Freedom of speech is limited in almost every area of a person’s life. For instance, a tennis player will be fined heavily during a tennis tournament if he expresses himself with foul language on the tennis court. This obviously curtails the right of the tennis player to express himself freely, but it protects the decency of the spectators because certain forms of language are not proper for some situations. If a person goes to the movies and begins to carry on a conversation it is most probable that security will ask him to leave the theater. By restricting his freedom of speech, the movie theater has protected the right of the person who went to enjoy a movie. The American courts have stated that the freedom of speech would not protect a man from falsely yelling “fire” in a theater and so creating a clear and present danger (Stone, Seidman). Therefore, the freedom of speech cannot be abused.
There are times when the government must guarantee the safety of the people, especially in times of war. For example, “the Congress has abridged the freedom of speech in 1798, when the Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts made it a criminal offense to entice people to overthrow an established government” (Microsoft “Speech, Freedom of”). Once again, one can see how the freedom of speech is not completely absolute. The government can also interfere in the freedom of speech by enforcing censorship.
Censorship is evident in the movies, music and books. Some states have eliminated certain books from their libraries. The famous book, Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain was eliminated because it contained the word “nigger”, and, therefore, offended the black community. Many believe that this is taking the issue too far because the intention of Mark Twain was not to offend any reader. This is when the situation of freedom of speech becomes controversial.
Any government must take special care when curtailing freedom of speech. The communist regimes are only a good reminder on how a society is affected by freedom of speech. In the case of Cuba, for example, no one can make a negative remark against the government. In other words the government of Cuba has total control over the people. This is not a true society because man will always cherish his freedom of speech.
Although freedom of speech is very valuable for a democratic society, it is important to give society certain limits. A person cannot expect to use foul language in public without a reaction. People must not use freedom of speech to attack a person without evidence. Freedom of speech must not be used to cause a fight or rebellion. The government has taken steps to avoid an abuse of freedom of speech.
Funk ; Wagnalls. New Encyclopedia. Volume 7, R.R. Donnellye ; Sons Company.
“Speech, Freedom of,” Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) 98 Encyclopedia. (c) Microsoft Corporation 1993-1997.
Stone, Geoffrey R.; Seidman, Robert H. Constitutional Law, 2nd Boston: Little Brown ; Company, 1991.