Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment

19th century Photo of O. W. Holmes Jr.Image via Wikipedia As a writer, one of the first things I was taught in journalism was the First Amendment. Many people misunderstand it, but as a writer, your job, your credibility, and your finances depend upon knowing it well.

The First Amendment reads:

“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.”

Though it is commonly known as the ‘free speech’ amendment, with great freedom comes great responsibility, and not all speech is equal. A very famous quote about free speech comes from US Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841 – 1935, pictured above), “ You are not free to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater.”

In accordance with this, several types of speech are NOT protected under the first amendment, and in my opinion, nor should they be. They include:

Libel (defamation of character in writing)
Slander (defamation of character orally)
Hate speech (defamation of a particular race, religion, group, etc)
The Heckler’s Veto (a ‘heckler’ drowning out the speech of someone with their heckling to the point of disrupting the meeting)
Fighting Words (speech that inflames listeners to violence)
Obscenity (the legal definition of obscenity is still a bit of a gray area that is hotly debated, but generally is understood to be ‘adult’ material that when taken as a whole has no redeeming social features)

*Please note I am not an attorney, nor a constitutional expert. I have explained these concepts and legalities as I understand them as a writer, and as brief research into my understanding of these issues has confirmed them to be true. I welcome any additions or clarifications from anyone with a more in-depth knowledge of these matters.

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