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What our First Amendment rights really mean, and the accountability that comes with them

Updated on January 1, 2014

Now, to know me is to know that I am without a doubt, the most foul-mouthed, "don't care what you think or like", and "tell it like it is" person. I swear with a proficiency and lust that can only be described as an art, a profession. Not only do I use the most visceral and foul words, but I also speak in a highly controversial manner, spanning the gamut of creed, sex, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and general personal dignity, constantly. I apologize to no one, and have balls the size of Texas, (and those are some especially hefty balls considering I'm a woman). So, it's clear to anyone who has in any way crossed my path, that I embody our First Amendment right more than anyone.
However, I say that with the complete understanding of what our freedom of speech really means, and much to my chagrin, that it doesn't mean there's no restrictions and most importantly, accountability. Accountability is really the key word here. Having the freedom to say whatever we want comes with both accountability and responsibility for our words.

I'm constantly hearing the bemoaning of people who think freedom of speech is a free-for-all where anything goes, and the slightest enactment of guidelines imposed upon them, equals censorship and a violation of our First Amendment rights. And they are wrong. We do have laws of limitation, and standards. You may be able to say whatever you please, but you also have to accept the consequences of what you say. The First Amendment says we are able to speak freely, but it doesn't say that there's no accountability for the words we say. The First Amendment (the freedom of religion, press, and expression), reads as follows; "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."
Nowhere does it read that there will be no accountability for the words we say.

Many people like to think that no one, nor any entity, can impose consequences upon the words we say, how we protest, and how we represent our opinions through art and representation. In reality, they most certainly can impose consequences. If you work for a business, and it's in their stipulations of employment that you may not wear a swastika on your person, be it in the form of clothing, arm bands, accessories, etc., and you do it anyway, they have the right punish or terminate you. The First Amendment does not bind business, organizations, or individuals, from enacting rules and regulations regarding speech, expression, and the written word, that can incite discord and jeopardize the health and safety of others. If you want to protest, you may do so regardless of your cause, but you must do so in what is considered to be an orderly and peaceable manner, that does not impede business, traffic, or put anyone in physical danger. So you can protest a business or enterprise, but you cannot block their doors, block the streets, or start a riot. Many states in the US still have laws on the books, if antiquated, that entitle them the right to prosecute over the use of obscene or foul language. It's very rarely enforced, but it's there. It's there to protect the people from physical danger, but also to protect children from both physical and emotional harm. Walking the streets shouting obscenities for all (including children) to hear, is NOT protected under the First Amendment right. When it comes to "art" or freedom of expression or the media/press, there are laws that govern these entities and subject matter. Pornography is one such example of this. You, nor any media outlet or press organization, may produce/create or even own pornography depicting a child under 18 years old. I actually hear people from time to time, who feel that our First Amendment rights protect our rights to be able to own or produce that type of pornography, which it simply does not. We have standards in the great United States, regardless of how sick and twisted any of it's citizens may be.

There's also the provision for defamatory, slanderous, and libelous speech. You do not have the right to hinder anyone's pursuit of health and happiness by defaming them. Prosecuting this is often difficult because first and foremost, it must be proven to be untrue, which can be difficult to conclusively prove. Slander or libel via the spoken word is always extremely difficult to prove for several reasons, one being of course that hearsay is inadmissible in court. However, slander via press or media has hard proof of what was printed or aired. Regardless of how difficult it can be to prosecute, it's still illegal and not protected under the First Amendment right, no matter whether we feel it's "justified" or not. You can't go around slandering others without regard to how it may affect their employment, personal life, or public perception (like in the case of political candidates of any kind).

The right of a company to be able to fire a person for how they express certain views and opinions, and what they say, is not hindered by the First Amendment. Certain circumstances can put a company in the position to be civilly sued for firing a person for something they say, or express, like in the case of religion. You have the freedom to practice your religion, regardless of any rules or feelings on that religion, providing it is not putting others in danger (like satanism in the workplace for instance). But beyond that, they do have the freedom to not continue your employment if you engage in unbecoming behavior or words in the workplace. You have the right not to work there if you don't agree with their rules and guidelines. A website has the right to discontinue your membership, censor your words, or not publish your work, if it violates their terms of use. If you don't like their terms of use, you can always choose not to use their website, however the First Amendment does not mean companies, websites, organizations or entities- be them public or private, lose their right to govern what they do and do not allow employees, customers, or users to speak or engage in. That's something many people just don't want to accept. But that's too bad.

A great analogy to our freedom of speech, is a sports game. If you want to play a game of soccer, there are rules as to what you can and cannot do. You may not touch the ball with your hands. Now, if you don't like that, don't play the game, go play a game where you can use your hands. But if you want to play the game, you have to follow the rules. Otherwise, you can be penalized, or tossed out of the game, simple as that. You can't use a hockey stick to play baseball. You have to choose a game that allows the use of a hockey stick, which would be hockey. But the governing entity over the baseball game, has the right to not allow you to play in the game if you insist on using a hockey stick. And it's much like that in how a business or organization works when it comes to freedom of speech and expression. There is accountability you must accept, when you say what you want, or express yourself as you want. There are varying levels of accountability, from a dirty look, to being canned from your job, or even sued, but accountability accompanies our freedom of speech, like it or not.

Do you feel employers should be able to use your Facebook content against you?

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The internet (something that was a couple hundred years away from the time when the Bill of Rights was enacted), has created a whole slew of new issues concerning our freedom of speech and expression. We allow pornography, but not of children under the age of 18. We allow for freedom of speech and expression on the internet, but must abide by the standards of use for each individual website, which many times does not allow for hate speech, or obscene materials. That being said, many websites have their biases, be them perceived or real. Facebook is an excellent example of this. We've seen countless examples of Facebook censoring, deleting, or not allowing certain things to be posted whether it be an entire group or page, or even on our own pages, based on their terms of use, yet often allow the same type of content on the other side of the argument. I see this happen the most with conservative subjects and speech that often get censored, yet allow very liberal or leftist content in the same vein to be published and allowed to stay. I'm a very conservative person politically, religiously, fiscally...so naturally I would see their leftist bias, and not like it. HOWEVER, I am also aware that ultimately, Facebook is not owned or operated by me, and though we have our freedom of speech, we must abide by their terms of use, which can include censorship of things that I deem as fair game. I don't have to patronize Facebook if I don't want to follow their rules. Furthermore, what I can and do say, will come with an accountability attached. When it comes to the internet, you can be as hateful and venomous as you want to be, but it will forever be there for anyone to see (regardless of what your expected privacy is- because on the internet there really is none). Being behind a computer screen creates a lot of bravado for most people. They will often say things over the internet from behind their computer that they would not say out in the real world, and in person. However, anything you say or do on the internet, can be held against you in life for the rest of your lives. My motto is to never post any photo you don't want the whole world to see, nor post any words that you don't want the world to see. For someone like myself, with a giant set of cojones, any word I post is something I would say in person to anyone, at any time, and that includes some pretty rotten things. However, I am also aware of the consequences that can come from my freedom to say whatever I please, a truth that is lost on so very many people these days. What you say now, can and usually will affect your employability for the rest of your life. That is not a concern I personally need to worry about, but most people do. Your freedom to say and do what you want on the internet comes with responsibility. Don't be surprised if things you post on the internet now, comes to bite you in the ass 15 years from now. So in reality, our freedom of speech isn't as freeing as we like to think. In fact, the more freedoms we take with our language and expression, the more limits we ultimately impose in our lives.

Taking responsibility for our words and actions seems to be a lost concept on more and more people these days. Speaking and acting without regard for who it affects, how it affects themselves and others, and what the consequences may be for our words, is often not considered. You can't use your First Amendment rights to say whatever you please. That's not what our Forefathers meant when they created the Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment. There needs to be a better understanding of our rights, and how they work, before we can use them in a civilized society. You're free to leave the US if you don't like our rules for a just and polite society, but I can almost guarantee you that you will not have the freedoms anywhere else, that you have here in the USA.

"You can't tell me what I can say...can you?"
"You can't tell me what I can say...can you?"

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      Emily 2 years ago

      AFAICT you've coveerd all the bases with this answer!

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      I enjoyed this hub.......factual, well-written and interesting. There are always "ifs" and "buts".....and hopefully, intelligent, mature adults, do not push the envelope to harmful lengths. All that you have stated is so true.

      As for the 2nd choice under your poll question......Once we have chosen to"publicize" our private life.........surprise....it's no longer "private." I wonder what it is that people don't understand about this? LOL..............I LOVE the Kitty cat. Adorable. ...UP++