What is “free speech”?

If you ever dip below the line on the internet and skim through the variety of intelligence, ignorance, and offensive statements that make up most comment sections, you’ll probably have seen this claim “[organization/company] shouldn’t have fined/fired/suspended this guy, he has freedom of speech!”

Sure, it is true that he has freedom of speech, but what does that mean? At the risk of boring you, here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

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.

That’s pretty straightforward. The government can’t restrict your freedom of speech (although there are a number of exceptions, they don’t apply here). You can’t be arrested for taking offense at Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend, or saying that on Twitter, or for making racist comments in a conversation. It’s not a crime.

However, your employer or any organizations with which you are affiliated can take the view that your opinions are likely to reflect poorly on them, and punish you as they see fit. In the case of Donald Sterling, the NBA is likely to argue that his comments may negatively effect the value of other teams and the league as a whole. For Don Jones, the Miami Dolphins will probably make a similar case if they are challenged on the point. The Constitution doesn’t require that organizations continue to affiliate with people who make comments that others consider offensive.

Freedom of speech doesn’t prevent people thinking (and saying) that you are a terrible person with nasty opinions. It doesn’t protect you from being fined, suspended, or fired from your job. It doesn’t protect you from having business associates force you out of a partnership. It simply prevents you from being prosecuted or restrained by the government for engaging in most forms of speech.

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