Why Freedom of Speech Requires Limitations
By Julia Jeon
Freedom of speech is a first amendment right of the Constitution that states, “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.” For a considerable amount of time, the issue of freedom of speech has been controversial. Different people have different views on whether or not the right to free speech should be unrestricted. Ideally, freedom of speech should be unlimited, however, there are many reasons why it cannot be. Complete and unlimited freedom of speech would make room for dissemination of false information, violent and hateful speech, and could ultimately result in global chaos. Freedom of speech is definitely a privilege, but it can also be used as a weapon.
If freedom of speech was completely unrestricted, there would be nothing preventing people from publishing or spreading false or inaccurate information. False information may not matter if we are just talking about the spreading of rumors at school. However, in the context of more serious topics, like news and politics, it is important that the public receive accurate information. If there weren’t laws in place that prevented the spread of false, exaggerated, or sensationalized information, journalists and reporters could simply falsify information to increase their viewership. As it is now, freedom of speech in the U.S. enables people to freely express their opinions, no matter how controversial. However, the purposeful dissemination of false information is and should be entirely illegal. U.S. Legal Code 18 states:
(a) Whoever imparts or conveys or causes to be imparted or conveyed false information, knowing the information to be false, concerning an attempt or alleged attempt being made or to be made, to do any act which would be a crime prohibited by this chapter or chapter 97 or chapter 111 of this title shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $1,000 which shall be recoverable in a civil action brought in the name of the United States.
(b) Whoever willfully and maliciously, or with reckless disregard for the safety of human life, imparts or conveys or causes to be imparted or conveyed false information, knowing the information to be false, concerning an attempt or alleged attempt being made or to be made, to do any act which would be a crime prohibited by this chapter or chapter 97 or chapter 111 of this title—shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
This legal code states that conveying false information with the intent to cause harm is a punishable offense.
Complete freedom of speech also makes room for offensive and hateful speech, which can have detrimental effects on society, including social discrimination, hate crimes, and increased suicide rates. Giving people unlimited freedom of speech effectively gives them the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want, even if what they have to say is hateful or derogatory. Because historically, many minority groups have been institutionally and socially marginalized, it is important for certain derogatory terms to be off limits, in order to break harmful cycles of oppression. In addition to this, because social marginalization has been motivated by institutions in the past, certain words carry more weight than others, especially those aimed at minorities. Studies by the CDC have found a direct correlation between bullying and suicide, and these studies have highlighted that “vulnerable youth,” (including youth with learning differences and LGBT youth) are more likely to be bullied.
Additionally, unlimited freedom of speech could result in uncontrollable chaos. For example, freedom of speech does not protect the use of speech to incite panic or violence. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater with intent to cause chaos or panic is illegal because it can result in somebody getting injured. Although it is legal to protest, violent protests, known as riots, are also prohibited by law because of the threat that they pose to public safety. Inciting violence, by verbally encouraging a peaceful crowd to become violent, is also a crime and not protected by the right to free speech.
Many people argue that freedom of speech should be completely unlimited and that people should always be able to express themselves fully. However, these arguments underestimate the power of words, and assume that speech does not have the ability to cause physical harm. Although I agree that people should have the right to express themselves, there should be certain limitations that protect our public safety and vulnerable youth. Without these limitations, words can act as weapons that do in fact cause physical damages.