GUEST VIEW: With freedom of speech comes great responsibility

The following editorial was published in the Aug. 20 edition of the Holland Sentinel:

(TNS) From time to time at pivotal points in U.S. history, Americans have been challenged to reassess the meaning and the gravity of one of the greatest gifts in our democracy: our right to free speech.

Freedom of speech is the concept of the inherent human right to voice one’s opinion freely and publicly — with the exceptions of defamation (lying) and incitement (encouraging others to violence or panic) — without fear of censorship or punishment.

As the First Amendment reads: Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press[.]”

But just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should or that there aren’t consequences for your words.

Every citizen is held responsible for the exercise of this right, meaning careless comments and unguarded remarks can land you in trouble if you do not exercise your rights responsibly. For example, you can be fired from your job over your speech.

The right to free speech only protects people from government interference. Private sector companies are a whole different story, and private companies are typically free to discipline employees for speech, such as comments posted on social media. (For public employees, the law is a bit more complex, although not all speech and action is protected.)

This is not to call for censorship, but it is to call for taking personal responsibility for minding our mouths.

And in a world where the online realm inserts distance, anonymity and speed into our social interactions, it makes it acceptable for many to dehumanize others. But the internet does not remove the person at the receiving end of your interaction. That person sitting in front of the screen, reading your words, is still very much real.

And they have the freedom of speech to respond, which could come in the form of a civil lawsuit if the subject of your speech believes you have defamed him or her — published false and malicious comments.

“The First Amendment exists to allow all of our voices to be heard, not to grant one voice the right to drown out all others,” columnist Allison Press wrote in the Technician, the student newspaper of North Carolina State University in 2015. “The First Amendment is not there to be used as an excuse for a poorly formulated opinion, an offhand sexist slur, or a rude retaliation. The First Amendment does not excuse you from basic respect, from critical thought, from kindness. Your First Amendment right should not be held higher than your sense of humanity.”

Inflammatory speech — anything short of inciting or producing imminent lawless action — usually is followed by free-speech absolutists’ insistence on the right to offend, insult or humiliate. However, it has ramifications and repercussions that have the potential to reach deep and cost dearly.

Each of us has the ability to heap verbal fire on the tinder.

Freedom of speech does not mean you get to say whatever you want without consequences. It simply means the government can’t stop you from saying it. It also means others get to say what they think about your words — something to consider beforehand.

Likewise, freedom of speech does not equate to “access to platform,” meaning we don’t have a fundamental right to have our words published by a private institution, say a newspaper. You can shout your words on the street corner, start up a blog, launch your own publication, fire off on your Facebook page, but you can’t compel or force another person or business to publish your comments.

If there were such a rule, it most certainly would abridge the rights of others (see First Amendment definition above).

It’s not an easy concept to navigate when we live in a world where we can have a thought and have it composed and published in less time than it takes to brew a K-cup.

“Being responsible is hard, hard work,” writer and playwright Carla Seaquist wrote in the Huffington Post in 2015. “The reptilian exists in all of us, in responsible people, too, but it’s our responsibility to subdue that beast — the struggle of civilization and its discontents — and speak and act in ways that, for the greater good, enhance human dignity.”

Perhaps that’s something we’ve lost somewhere along the way — remembering that we’re human and that our words wield immense power. And with great power comes great responsibility.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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