“Free speech” is a term that gets thrown around quite often these days. But what is it? And why is it important?
The freedom of speech is simply the ability to say, write, or otherwise express what you truly believe without fear of punishment or retaliation from the government.
This freedom is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” The authors of our Constitution believed it was very important to protect this freedom.
And for good reason.
Speaking is how you express your thoughts. So if government officials can force you to say things you don’t believe, you no longer control the content of your speech and thus lose the freedom to live consistently with the principles you treasure most.
Government officials who seek to control your speech are trying to control what you think and what you do. And that’s contrary to the very idea of freedom. Not only that, but it’s contrary to the dignity of the human person. Our thoughts not only cause our actions, they are the most personal possession we have.
While upholding human dignity is the most important reason to protect this freedom, it certainly isn’t the only reason.
If you want good ideas to have influence, you’ll support protections for the freedom of speech. The best ideas often come from the robust discussion and debate of many different ideas.
And this cannot exist without free speech.
What the freedom of speech is not.
Some might argue that the freedom of speech is just a piece of rhetoric used by those who want to say hateful things. But this is false.
Free speech is a right that every individual possesses as a human being created by God.
And this right isn’t just for those with certain beliefs. In fact, that’s the whole point. There are as many unique perspectives as there are people. Our ability to share our perspective with others is what free speech is all about.
As the Declaration of Independence says, “all men are created equal.” But this doesn’t mean that all ideas are equal. There will always be bad or even false ideas that we must address.
But the answer isn’t to shut down debate or silence the people sharing those ideas. The answer is more speech.
We can use our own speech to answer hateful statements with good and truthful ones. We can debate ideas we consider bad with those we believe are good.
No matter what, we need those with whom we disagree to be involved in the conversation.
Debate with our ideological opponents sharpens our ideas and may even allow us to see the truth in a new and unexpected way. Not only that, but our opponents’ right to free speech should be protected because they are human beings with dignity just like us. And if their right is taken away, then ours can easily be taken away too.
It has been said that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
What is Compelled Speech?
When we think of the First Amendment right to free speech, we often think of how it protects us from being censored by the government because of what we say.
But what about what we do not say?
The Constitution also protects us from being forced to say or express messages with which we disagree. While this may seem like a far-fetched scenario, it is becoming increasingly common. Take for example artists and other creative professionals.
Artists express their thoughts and beliefs through custom creations. Painters, calligraphers, graphic designers, photographers , and, yes, cake artists, all express their beliefs through their various mediums. But what happens when the government tries to dictate what these artists can and cannot express with their work?
Well, a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, this has been happening more and more with the spread of so-called Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws. These laws often seek to force creative professionals to create messages through their art with which they disagree.
Why we must protect our freedom of speech
Abolishing the freedom of speech and trying to control what people say are the tools of tyrants.
Our Founders valued free speech because they knew the consequences when it was taken away. Many of the first settlers who came to America in the 17th century were escaping England, where the King tried to force them to profess religious beliefs with which they disagreed.
This isn’t just something that happened in the past. Today, in many countries around the world, people are arrested, imprisoned, and even sentenced to death for expressing views with which the government disagrees.
We are truly blessed to live in the United States where we can share our views, regardless of what those views are. We must keep it this way.
Right now, the First Amendment is under threat.
Free speech is being attacked on college campuses
Universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas where students can learn from many different perspectives. Unfortunately, today, there is a culture of silencing certain viewpoints on many college campuses.
Students who want to say anything contrary to a far-left worldview are often shut down or told they can only speak in so-called “speech zones” on campus.
And it’s not just students. Professors have been denied promotions and even fired for expressing their views. Speakers invited to college campuses by right-leaning student groups have been protested and even canceled by college administrators.
Free speech is under threat in corporate board rooms
Anti-free speech culture is spreading from university campuses into corporate board rooms. Employees and shareholders at many large corporations fear sharing their true opinions. They face backlash from left-leaning leadership and co-workers that could lead to being reprimanded or even fired.
Corporations even rely on discredited sources like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to prevent right-leaning organizations from using their products or resources. This happened to Alliance Defending Freedom. Amazon continues to rely on the SPLC’s false label to prevent ADF from using their charity program, AmazonSmile.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, this affects thousands of Americans who use the products and services of huge corporations like Amazon.
Free speech is under attack on social media platforms
You may have heard of “cancel culture.” It often references scenarios like this: a person posts something on social media that expresses a certain viewpoint. Those against that viewpoint mob the post, calling for the poster to be humiliated, silenced, and in some cases, even fired from their job. Every once in a while, the poster’s personal information—such as their personal address—will be shared online in an attempt to intimidate that person.
What’s worse is that these “mobs” frequently get their wish. And in many instances, tech companies that run social media platforms censor posts or even suspend users for expressing certain views.
People should not have to fear for their job or personal safety simply because they shared their opinions online. Cancel culture is antithetical to a culture of free speech and debate.
Do you have an opinion on an important cultural or political topic that you want to share? Our Constitution protects your right to do so. But we need to be vigilant to make sure this protection is not taken away. That is why ADF is committed to protecting the freedom of speech—not just for some—but for every American.
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Chike Uzuegbunam was punished for speaking on Georgia Gwinnett College’s campus. His case went all the to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Photographer Bob Updegrove is challenging the unconstitutional Virginia Values Act, which would force him to violate his deeply held beliefs.