Free Speech – What It Is and What It Is Not

It is sadly too common in the world today that people know just enough about something to fail to understand it while thinking they understand it thoroughly. I am sure I have been guilty myself of the same short-sightedness. “Free speech” is one of those subjects that I think falls into this category that people like to talk about, but have little actual understanding of it.

It has now been reported that Elon Musk has purchased the social media platform, Twitter. He fired the CEO and 75% of Twitter employees according to reports. I have read many comments saying that perhaps he will restore “freedom of speech” to the platform. Regardless of what you think of either Twitter or Elon Musk, the freedom of speech, at least as it is defined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, has nothing to do with Twitter. The 1st Amendment says:

“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.”

Relevant to this discussion are the words, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” When discussing free speech in the context of our liberties here in the United States, it is necessary to understand that its proper, contextualized meaning is that the Congress of the United States (the lawmaking branch of government) is not permitted to pass laws that interfere in any way with this right, which also implies it is the job of Congress to protect it. Nothing more. While a social media platform may be the means by which someone exercises the right to free speech and freedom of expression, whether such a platform allows a person to make use of that platform has zero to do with the 1st Amendment. The Constitution is not violated when someone gets banned from Twitter, so it is a real misunderstanding when someone brings up free speech relative to Twitter or any similar platform.

Your right to free speech simply means that you can exercise it without congressional interference. The 1st Amendment is not license to say anything you want anywhere at any time. And it certainly does not prohibit a privately owned company from prohibiting you making use of their product. Whatever Elon Musk does with Twitter, it won’t be to “restore” free speech as if Congress has abridged it.

What is the basis of free speech and why is it a matter of Congress not interfering with it? Nearly seven decades after the 1st Amendment was ratified, John Stuart Mill wrote that individual independence, as it pertains to the individual alone, is absolute. And that “[o]ver himself, his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” This absolute liberty has two aspects. First, one is free to think whatever one wishes. Second, one is absolutely free to express what one thinks.

However, and I think Mill is correct on this point, that the absoluteness of these rights does not hold outside of the individual. Mill says a person may be prohibited from the exercise of one’s rights (including freedom of speech) when it is necessary to prevent harm to others. This is why certain kinds of speech have been ruled by the Supreme Court to not be protected by the 1st Amendment, such as libel or slander, defamation, or speech that incites violence.

It should go without saying that any liberty that we have should be exercised such as to contribute to the progress of civil society and, therefore, responsibly exercised. Of course, if you have to say, “it should go without saying,” it is sadly the case that you still have to say it. Just because the law may not prohibit you from expressing something does not mean that you can say it for no other reason than it is “my right!” Great. You can say anything you like. But ask yourself whether it builds community or tears it down. Does it contribute to the cultivation of good virtues, especially that of citizenship. To borrow from Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, do you consider whether what you say is said “at the right time, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right purpose, and with the right motive”? Or do you just say it because you can?

Your answer to that question reveals what kind of person you are.

Just keep in mind, if Twitter bans you or a college or university decides to disinvite a speaker, the 1st Amendment is not being violated and free speech is not being repressed. Whether it is advisable or done for the right reasons is another conversation, but it is not a 1st Amendment issue.


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