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When Is “Free Speech” Not?

WordsWhat is “free speech”? If you’re a writer, you’ve doubtless come across the concept. What does it mean? How does it look? Act? Behave?

For some, “free speech” means “we all have the right to an opinion and to voice that opinion.” Nobody can tell anyone “what they can and can’t say.”  No constraints. No boundaries. Anything goes. Period.

Get Lost, Cookie?

Example: I came across a political blog the other day that contained profanity and some tasteless content, IMHO.  What was said wasn’t an issue; it was how it was said. The blog owner asked readers to comment, share links, etc. Out of respect for my readers, I politely suggested that I’d be happy to do so if the language could be cleaned up. Wrapped in the Bill of Rights and “free speech,” the response was basically, “Get lost, cookie.”

So I did.

When Is “Free Speech” Not?

Realizing that people have a right to disagree and disagree passionately on a variety of topics, I wondered at what point, if any, is “free speech” not free? Is there a point where it becomes costly?

Tossing that out to others recently, the question generated quite a discussion – and many different views and nuances.  Here’s some feedback. “Free speech” may not be “free” when it:

  • Compromises your integrity.
  • Violates your standards.
  • Is intentionally offensive.
  • Your choice of words or writing style is so abrasive that your point gets lost in the flames.
  • All semblance of responsibility and professionalism are jettisoned.
  • Is used to excuse limited vocabulary or lazy writing.
  • Costs you readers.

Someone also pointed out that “free speech” is not an absolute right. “You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” he said.

In America, we hold the Bill of Rights dear. The right to free speech, including the right to disagree, is held dear. And they should be. But are writers held to a higher standard? When? Does that depend on context? Audience? Or something else?

Where do “free speech” and responsibility intersect? Or do they? Does it matter?