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The Price of Free Speech in America

Updated on May 30, 2018
RJ Schwartz profile image

I'm on the right side of politics and enjoy a good debate on government, the economy, common sense, and the rights of the people.

Free Speech is a right granted to all citizens of the United States, and the provisions are written in the Constitution. That right, among many other rights, separates America from the rest of the world. In theory, people are free to say anything they want, provided it doesn’t incite actions that cause harm to others. For instance, you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded public place. Also certain things considered obscene are not protected, and you cannot lie to Federal investigators without serious consequence.

Politicians are an exception to the rule of law. They are protected against being prosecuted for lying. It sounds like a rigged system until you add the fact that all citizens are also free to criticize their politicians and our government, even if they are wrong or outright lying. Strangely enough, this was not a major issue until the Nixon-era and it’s been getting worse ever since.

Students Have Limitations to Free Speech while af School

Not all citizens are treated equally concerning 1st Amendment rights. Students rights are limited while they are at school. They do not surrender their rights at the doorway, but they are restricted in a few ways to prevent disruptions to the educational process. The Supreme Court has weighed in several times since the Constitution was drafted, each time limiting certain behaviors by students attending public school. First, in the 1969 case of Tinker versus Des Moines when students opted for a silent protest of the Viet Nam War by wearing black armbands to school. The Supreme Court sided with the students in this case. It was a pivotal moment in our nation, and the victory for students fueled future challenges.

In 1986, the Supreme Court took on the Bethel School District vs. Fraser case, and ruled in favor of the school system. The case involved high school student Matthew Fraser, who made sexual connotations in a speech he gave for the student body. The school rightfully suspended him; he fought it but eventually lost. Vulgarity was not considered protected at the same level political speech was.

In the 1987-1988 Hazelwood School District vs. Kulmeier case, student journalists tried to publish articled in the school newspaper about divorce and teen pregnancy. The school was sued by the students who thought their rights were being infringed upon. After a back and forth in the courts, the Supreme Court sided with the school, citing that student newspapers woils not be presumed to be operating as public forums for student expression.

Finally in the 2007 case of Morse vs. Frederick, the Supreme Court again ruled in favor of the principal’s decision to suspend Student named Joseph Frederick for hanging a banner across the street from the school that said “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.” Even though the banner was off school property, it was visible and promoted drugs and drug use, which were illegal in all states at the time.

The Media, Internet, Print, and Broadcast

The internet has been championed by many as the ultimate free speech platform, even permitting obscenity, hate speech, and all sorts of graphic images of death, dismemberment, and depravity. Traditional media sources including newspapers, magazines, AM and FM radio, and all types of televised content can be restricted. The FCC is prohibited from attempting to stop the broadcast of any point of view, however the agency can restrict the time of day that some types of content can be aired or broadcasted on radio or television. The press (the term “press” includes all types of printed materials) has broad protections including the right to publish opinions, information, or other stories without fear of censorship. Also the law provides provisions that prevents the government from forcing the press to publish against their will or to force them to reveal their information sources.

This brief look at the different types of media demonstrate that there are differences in how different segments of the media are regulated. Because of these differences, we see news and current events reported on differently, or sometimes not at all. There is one other noteworthy topic that has helped keep this freedom actually free. It’s known as the Fairness Doctrine and its important to understand its origins and impact on the media from its inception until today.

The Fairness Doctrine

There was a time in American history when the media had an obligation to devote a portion of their time focused on ‘public interest’ topics. The rule was implemented in 1949 by the FCC and it required all broadcasters to devote time to topics which were of national concern. Additionally, it required the broadcasters to air differing points of view on the topic of interest; basically providing a fair playing field for all concerned parties. In 1969, the Supreme Court validated the Fairness Doctrine and stated that it was not only Constitutional but essential to a healthy democracy and the public welfare.

Even though it was ruled Constitutional, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987. It has been a political talking point over the years, especially during election years. As a result of this repeal, the American public has been subjected to biased and unbalanced reporting on most major issues. In some cases, stories are suppressed totally. Many traditional old-school journalists blame the state of today’s media on this simple change. Now media is aggregated and regurgitated through major media companies which own huge market shares in all the major urban areas. They profit on selective reporting and also do damage control for their shareholders and investors. Talk radio is dominated by conservative hosts and network news is dominated by liberal hosts. Both are unbalanced are are in constant conflict.

Free Speech in a Polarized Nation is Policed by the Court of Public Opinion

The media was given a free hand since the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, and they’ve taken it to a level that I’m sure no one expected. What is labelled as news is no longer news. It’s a collection of highly opinionated talking heads expressing carefully crafted messages to steer public opinion on the issues. The recent surge by organized groups known as Social Justice Warriors has fueled the court of public opinion by exposing and then spreading any perceived transgression everywhere. Many of those who had their careers blemished today, were victims of things said long ago. Because the internet never forgets anything, it’s difficult for people to defend themselves.

When Someone Goes Too Far

Despite the lack of regulation by the government, there are consequences for those who choose to express their free speech vigorously on controversial topics. The court of public opinion is powerful and vengeful, often with swift and permanent consequences to the person or group they consider offensive. Often times, the media plays a key role in ‘ginning up’ incidents which they see as wedge issues. Sometimes it’s for ratings, other times as part of a larger political strategy that their parent company supports. In certain cases, it’s all about an individual who just comes unhinged and goes on a rant about something and does so without a filter. Unfortunately for them, it rarely works out in the positive.

The List

Several high profile individuals and companies have been destroyed figuratively for exercising their free speech rights, or at least what they perceived as their rights. Gawker Media was forced into bankruptcy by former studio wrestler Hulk Hogan with the help of Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal. The company regularly pushed the limits, especially in trying to expose the private lives of people and even more so, to ‘out’ those who were homosexual. Another organization, the National Football League, is still under fire for players kneeling during the National Anthem. Attendance has fallen off, and fans are still leaving because of the protests. Comedian Kathy Griffin held a photoshopped severed head of President Trump in her hand and it led to her career being destroyed. She was essentially blackballed for her so-called joke. Roseanne Barr, the most recent addition to the list was fired, had her show cancelled, and appears to be heading into obscurity because she made a racially charged tweet on Twitter about Valerie Jarret.

YouTube stars Jake Paul and Kian Lawley are both under fire, as well as media talking-head Joy Behr for comments they made in the past which came back to haunt them. Musician Lauryin Hill had her career derailed because of something she said in 1996; something she denies vehemently, but nevertheless once the media picked up on it, she was basically sidelined. Celebrity chef Paula Deen was roasted, no pun intended, for using language which was deemed racist. Businesswoman and senior director of corporate communications at IAC, tweeted about AIDS in Africa in a very negative way. She was quickly dismissed from her job. Michael Richards, better known as Kramer on the hit series Seinfeld, hasn’t performed stand-up since his racist tirade at the Comedy Store in 2006. Mel Gibson was shelved for years because of a similar outburst. Additionally there have been dozens of on-air personalities who are no longer on air because of something they said which ‘offended’ enough people that their firms fired or demoted them.


Free speech is a powerful tool in the right hands, but as we see, it is subjected to multiple abuses. Those who cross the line are usually caught and their careers are decimated, even if they make a thousand apologies. It seems that we’ve given up on the concept of ‘forgive and forget.’ Our nation is getting more polarized each day and the media is now seen as a tool to advance an agenda instead of the fourth arm of government checks and balances that it used to be viewed as. The rise of new media on the internet serves as an alternative platform, but like traditional media, it is also filled with fake news with an agenda. As each election cycle comes and goes, the vitriolic rhetoric keeps growing, driven by a ‘win at all costs’ mentality of the major players.

What‘s undeniable is that almost everything this list of people said is protected as free speech, but it’s also undeniable that it doesn’t matter anymore. The modern generation is less tolerant of questionable humor, racism or perceived racism, dog whistle speech, among others things. We are a politically correct society and the balance of power has shifted to mob mentality. Corporations are terrified at negative press and they quickly roll-over to ensure the public doesn’t boycott them. Issues aren’t debated anymore, they are instead forced on people and argued about loudly and often. The middle ground is shrinking quickly and people are being forced to take sides. Those who exercise their right of Free Speech do so perilously, especially if its remotely controversial.

© 2018 Ralph Schwartz


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