Articles Tagged with free speech

Free Speech: it is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But does that mean anything goes? Some may be surprised to learn that there are definite limits on what is allowed. 

What is Permitted

In this country, the concept of speech is more than simply actual words. It includes actions, as well.  Particular activities encompass the right of free speech, according to the US Supreme Court. They include:

  • The right to protest—that might be by wearing armbands, by marching, by refusing to purchase particular merchandise, or to kneel during the National Anthem, and much more;
  • The right to use offensive language—including ideas that offend others—when attempting to convey a political message;
  • The right to donate money (with limitations) to the political party of your choice; 
  • The right to participate in symbolic activities that may offend others, such as burning the American flag;
  • The right to refrain from speaking—specifically, the right to refuse to salute the American flag 
  • The right to advertise goods and/or services (with some restrictions).


While it may seem that Americans experience endless freedom when it comes to speech, there are some explicit boundaries.  Some speech that is not protected by the Constitution includes language that:

  • Incites criminal action;
  • Relates to the creation or distribution of obscenities;
  • Includes protesting a draft by burning draft cards;
  • Threatens to commit violence against someone else;
  • Is defined as fighting words that occur in face-to-face interactions and are likely to provoke a violent response from a typical person;
  • Involves the printing of articles in a school newspaper despite the objections of the school administration;
  • Is obscene speech at any school-sponsored activities;
  • Advocates using illegal substances at a school-sponsored activity.

Defining the Terminology

Unquestionably, some of the words related to free speech and its limitations are tough to understand and define. This requires a closer look at some of the terminology:

1-    Threats:  Even if a threat is not carried out, the making of any threat is illegal;

2-    Incitement:  While it is allowable to promote violence or lawlessness, it becomes a legal problem if the incitement is likely to produce imminent violence.

3-    Obscenity:  Three standards must be met in order for material to be considered legally obscene:

  1. a)     Sexual behavior is depicted or described in an offensive way as per community standards;
  2. b)    When viewed in its entirety the material violates community standards and is determined to appeal to one’s “prurient interest;”
  3. c)     Community standards render the material to have no literary, political, scientific, or artistic value.

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Free speech in America is central to our democracy. But do Americans really understand this right and the very real limitations on speech? It is worth noting in these challenging times that when people choose to ignore the restrictions on free speech it could lead to legal woes. 

Recent High-Profile Example

Alex Jones, who spent about a decade gushing falsehoods about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on his radio show, wound up being sued for the damage he caused to the survivors of the shooting. A jury sided with the plaintiffs, which resulted in Jones being ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the families of victims in a combination of compensatory and punitive damages. Jones argued that he was being prosecuted –and persecuted–simply for using his First Amendment right to free speech. The jury did not buy it.  It is true that the First Amendment protects the right to express dissenting opinions, even when those opinions are flat-out wrong based on the facts, they are offensive, or they are cruel. However, it does not protect against defamatory speech. Sandy Hook families were able to launch civil charges against Jones for defamation, and the juries agreed that his words were not protected.

Some Speech is Not Protected by the First Amendment

In fact, there are several types of free speech that are not protected by the Constitution. These include:

  • Defamation and label;
  • Vandalism;
  • Criminal threats;
  • Child pornography;
  • Unlawful assembly;
  • Refusing to disperse if police direct one to;
  • Trespassing;
  • Obstruction of a law enforcement officer.

Hate Speech

Hate speech has been in the news a lot these days. There is actually no legal definition for hate speech, but most people recognize that it relates to any speech that is demeaning or insulting to a particular group that is based on sexual orientation, religion, race, disability, or gender. Speech directed toward specific subgroups like these is not protected by the first amendment in this country


The Supreme Court has ruled that highly controversial actions such as burning an American flag are protected by the First Amendment, despite the fact that many in this country find such behavior to be detestable. On the other hand, it is unlawful to use a symbol as a threat to others. What about carrying a confederate flag or wearing a swastika if others feel threatened by those items? This is essentially a gray area, and each case is determined on its own merits and the level of threat involved. Continue reading

It has been reported that Governor Jerry Brown signed into a law that would make it a crime to “willfully and repeatedly” decline to use a senior transgender patient’s “preferred name or pronouns.”  SB 179 (“Gender Recognition Act”) was signed into law back in October. The law will allow individuals to update state-issued identification documents (including birth certificates, state identification cards, and driver’s licenses) to select “nonbinary” as their gender.

Specifically, S.B. 179 states: “It shall be unlawful for a long-term care facility or facility staff to take any of the following actions wholly or partially on the basis of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) status.” Among the unlawful actions are “willfully and repeatedly” failing to use a transgender person’s “preferred name or pronouns” after he or she is “clearly informed of the preferred name or pronouns.”

However, there has been some confusion about the consequences of the law. The sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, has claimed that nobody is going to be criminally prosecuted for using the wrong pronoun. Rather, Wiener says that the bill is aimed at at protecting transgender and other LGBT individuals in hospitals, retirement homes, and assisted living facilities. It is intended to ensure that those medical facilities accommodate transgender people and their needs, including letting them decide which gender-specific bathroom they prefer to use.

This law may also affect employment law, as employers should also allow both nonbinary and transgender employees to indicate their preferred name and choice of pronoun while updating their staff health records.

It is reported that a healthcare worker who is found guilty of repeatedly breaching the law would be facing a maximum fine of $1,000, a year in prison, or both. The proposed legislation has met fierce opposition from conservative groups, criticizing the law’s overreaching authority and the threat to freedom of speech.

Up until now, crimes of discrimination, were covered under California’s hate crime laws, which are covered under California Penal Code § 422. Continue reading

In an unprecedented case, Apple, the ever-popular electronics company, has argued that the FBI is violating its constitutional First amendment rights. In a 36-page legal brief submitted in the District Court: Central District of California, Apple made its first formal rebuttal to a court order ordering Apple to code a software that would make it easier for the government to crack open the phone of the San Bernardino gunman, Syed Farook.

Apple’s legal team, led by George W. Bush’s former solicitor general, Theodore Olson, claims that computer code is speech, which cannot be compelled. Compelling Apple to write a code it does not want to violates the first amendment. Moreover, Apple has accused the federal government of being indifferent to privacy concerns and being dishonest in how legally valid the request was.

Lastly, Apple has claimed that the order violates its fifth amendment due process protections by leaning too heavily on the archaic 1789 All Writs Act. Essentially, the Act allows courts to issue whatever legal orders they need to issue in order to do their jobs. See 28 USC §1651.  Essentially, the company claims that forcing them to write a special code for the FBI is burdensome, illegal, and unfair.

As if this year’s race to the White House could not get any more dramatic or contentious, Kansas City police in Missouri pepper sprayed a group of protestors outside Donald Trump’s rally.  According to the Kansas City police, they did it to break up two large groups of people who were ready to fight. They also claimed that they arrested two people for failing to follow the law.  Meanwhile, inside the event, Trump was continually interrupted by protesters, who were quickly escorted out by police. The move by police marks yet another moment of conflict at a Trump rally. Chaos ensued earlier in the same week when he canceled his campaign stop at the University of Illinois in Chicago after protesters flooded the pavilion.

Pepper spraying protestors is a rare occurrence when it come to presidential campaign events, but it is becoming more and more common in this election cycle. This week, the NYPD pepper sprayed a crowd of protestors that were marching towards the Trump International Tower. There were thousands of protesters walking from Central Park to the Trump tower.

Trump has said during his Kansas rally that he wants charges filed against all the people protesting him. In addition to police force, his rallies bore witness to violence in Arizona and Ohio, and his campaign is notorious for violent and racially charged rhetoric.

A Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally in Anaheim erupted in violence at the end of February, when three people were stabbed and 13 people were arrested. The KKK had planned a rally at Peterson Park for the afternoon to protest against immigration and Muslims, when counter-protesters showed up to confront them. Fighting broke out just moments after the KKK members exited their vehicles. According to reports, witnesses saw the counter-protesters kicking and attacking the KKK members. Then one protester collapsed, crying he had been stabbed. Additionally, two other protesters were stabbed during the melee — one with a knife and the other with an unidentified weapon.

There was next to no police presence at the rally when it first started. A KKK member in handcuffs is reportedly claiming that he stabbed the other protester in self defense. Witnesses said they saw the Klansmen using the point of a flagpole as a weapon while fighting with protesters. Another witness who was near the Klansmen reported seeing them swarmed and attacked with two-by-fours and other weapons by the counter protesters.

The Klan members who were determined to be connected to the three stabbings were arrested.  All could face charges of assault with a deadly weapon, although some folks could have a self-defense claim.

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