The First Amendment as the Standard Bearer Part 1 in 4 part series: What is free speech?14 min read

The First Amendment as the Standard Bearer

As a writer, I am dependent upon the freedom to convey my ideas, and I enjoy dialogue from those who disagree with me. So I’ve come to appreciate the depth and brevity of the American idea of free speech found in the First Amendment.

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.

Religious Belief

Our religious beliefs, superstitions, doctrines, traditions, or lack thereof are all forms of free speech under the US Constitution. So whether you believe in God, Allah, Buddha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you have a right to freely believe and convey that belief. And, in the United States at least, we also have the right to question religious beliefs though not without controversy.

The Press

If it were not for the printing press, some of the greatest revolutions would not have taken place. The printing press made religious freedom possible during the Protestant Reformation, and allowed information to spread across the colonies during the War for Independence. It’s been the safe haven for whistle blowers, and the watchdog (for most of its history anyway) of government corruption. The press now extends to the Internet which has changed and connected the world in a way not seen since Gutenberg invented his printing press. There does seem to be some question and doubt about whether modern news media outlets are truly reporting the news in the same spirit as the first amendment and it may have some merit considering the fact that every tv channel can be followed back to a total of 6 or 7 parent companies throughout the whole world.

Peaceful Assembly

We usually attribute this one to peaceful protest, and while it is certainly included, it is not limited to protest. Peaceful assembly can also be construed as peaceful associations, or the right to choose whom we do and do not associate with. Of course, the caveat here is the qualifier; peaceful. We’ll get into this more in the next blog on what free speech does not entail.

Petitioning the government

When the idea of free speech spread across the world, this one was left out in many new constitutions, and remains a truly American hallmark. The right to petition and criticize the government is, ideally, what keeps government on its toes. Since our government is (supposed to be) under the law, when we observe actions taken by any public official, it’s our right (duty) to question, call out, and reprimand those governing officials. It’s the Paradox of Public Servitude.


It’s interesting to note that the founders still distinguished between speech and the above the mentioned forms of it. We’ve learned over time that speech is more than the words that come from our mouth and those written on a page. Art, music, video, dance, are all additional forms of accepted speech. Even our choices are an expression of our thoughts, feelings, and ideas. We can speak for and against businesses through our choice to shop or boycott them. We can speak our love for our children by our active involvement or passivity towards them. We can even speak in our silence.

Free speech covers a great deal more than mere words from the mouth or on a piece of paper. Speech is in our actions, beliefs, dreams, and philosophies. Upon reflection, you may realize that speech may include things that you take offense to and would not want in your ideal society. And in fact, it is illegal in the US to make statements that incite violence or prejudicial acts. This is called hate speech, and it still today is hotly contested as being in the realm of free speech or not. So in the my next article, I’ll discuss the Matter of Offense to what end is free speech protected at least in a libertarian society.

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     NEXT: Is Offensive Speech Free Speech? →

Interesting facts about free speech in other countries: (Courtesy of Wikipedia)


Under “Chapter III: Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Residents”: Article 27: Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike. Article 30: The freedom and privacy of communication of Hong Kong residents shall be protected by law. No department or individual may, on any grounds, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of communication of residents except that the relevant authorities may inspect communication in accordance with legal procedures to meet the needs of public security or of investigation into criminal offences.
Speech is generally free, but limited in these cases: The integrity of India The security of the State Friendly relations with foreign States Public order Decency or morality Contempt of court Defamation or incitement to an offense
On 11 July 2011, the Knesset passed a law making it a civil offence to publicly call for a boycott against Israel, defined as “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage”. According to the law anyone calling for a boycott can be sued and forced to pay compensation, regardless of actual damages. At the discretion of a government minister, they may also be prevented from bidding in government tenders
In Malaysia, “God” and “Prophet Muhammad” are used by politicians to answer to the peoples and the media. In May 2008, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put forward a headline “Media should practice voluntary self-censorship”, saying there is no such thing as unlimited freedom and the media should not be abashed of “voluntary self-censorship” to respect cultural norms, different societies hold different values and while it might be acceptable in secular countries to depict a caricature of Prophet Muhammad, it was clearly not the case here. “It is not a moral or media sin to respect prophets”. He said the Government also wanted the media not to undermine racial and religious harmony to the extent that it could threaten national security and public order. “I do not see these laws as curbs on freedom. Rather, they are essential for a healthy society.”
There is heavy government involvement in the media, with many of the largest media organizations being run by the Communist-Party-led government. References to democracy, the free Tibet movement, Taiwan as an independent country, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the 2014 Hong Kong protests, the Arab Spring, certain religious organizations and anything questioning the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China are banned from use in public and blocked on the Internet. Web portals including Microsoft’s MSN have come under criticism for aiding in these practices, including banning the word “democracy” from its chat-rooms in China. Due to close geographical proximity to Hong Kong, parts of southern China are able to receive broadcast signals from television channels in Hong Kong, where China’s censorship does not apply. However, comments that the Communist Party feel uncomfortable with are cut out and replaced with TV commercials before they can reach consumers’ TVs in mainland China. Very few Western films are given permission to play in Chinese theaters, although widespread unlicensed copying of these films makes them widely available.
Finland has been ranked in the Press Freedom Index as the country with the best press freedom in 2002–2006, 2009–2010, and 2012–2014. According to the Constitution, everyone has freedom of expression, entailing the right to express, disseminate and receive information, opinions and other communications without prior prevention by anyone.[76] The Finnish mass-media has a own self-regulatory organ which regulates the ethics of the press. A demonstration or other public assembly requires no permission from the police or other authorities. If a public meeting is held outdoors, the police must be notified of the event no later than six hours before the assembly is scheduled to begin, but the police have no authority to prohibit the event. Defamation is a crime only if the target is a private person. Defamation of corporations is never a crime unless it’s covered by competition regulations or similar legislation. Sentences have never been given for publishing pro-drug propaganda. Blasphemy and hate speech are forbidden. The blasphemy law applies to all religions. The hate speech law protects people of different sexual orientations, races, skin colors, places of birth, national or ethnic origins, religions or beliefs and disabled people.[81] The sentence for committing these crimes could theoretically be imprisonment, but during the modern juridical history the sentence has always been a fine.
The press is regulated by the law of Germany as well as all 16 States of Germany.[89] The most important and sometimes controversial regulations limiting speech and the press can be found in the Criminal code: Insult is punishable under Section 185. Satire and similar forms of art enjoy more freedom but have to respect human dignity (Article 1 of the Basic law). Malicious Gossip and Defamation (Section 186 and 187). Utterances about facts (opposed to personal judgement) are allowed if they are true and can be proven. Yet journalists are free to investigate without evidence because they are justified by Safeguarding Legitimate Interests (Section 193). Hate speech may be punishable if against segments of the population and in a manner that is capable of disturbing the public peace (Section 130 [Agitation of the People]), including racist agitation and antisemitism. Holocaust denial is punishable according to Section 130 subsection 3. Membership in or support of banned political parties (Section 86). Currently banned parties include the SRP and the KPD, but historically all non-Nazi parties have been banned (1933–1945). Dissemination of Means of Propaganda of Unconstitutional Organizations (Section 86). Use of Symbols of Unconstitutional Organizations (Section 86a). Items such as the Swastika or clothing of the FDJ is banned. Disparagement of the Federal President (Section 90). the State and its Symbols (Section 90a). Insult to Organs and Representatives of Foreign States (Section 103). Rewarding and Approving Crimes (Section 140). Casting False Suspicion (Section 164). Insulting of Faiths, Religious Societies and Organizations Dedicated to a Philosophy of Life if they could disturb public peace (Section 166). Dissemination of Pornographic Writings (Section 184).
The Swiss Constitution also guarantees Freedom of speech and Freedom of information for every citizen (Article 16).[160] But still the country makes some controversial decisions, which both Human Right Organizations and other states criticizes. The Swiss animal rights organization “Verein gegen Tierfabriken Schweiz” took the country to the European Court of Human Rights twice for censoring a TV ad of the organization, in which the livestock farming of pigs is shown. The organization won both lawsuits, and the Swiss state was convicted to pay compensations. Another very controversial law of Switzerland is that persons who refuse to recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915 have to face trial. The Turkish politician Doğu Perinçek was fined CHF 12,000 for denying the genocide in 2007. Switzerland was criticized by Turkish media and Turkish politicians for acting against the freedom of opinion. Perinçek’s application for a revision was rejected by the court. Holocaust denial is also illegal.
Various aspects of the contemporary press freedom situation are criticized by multiple international organizations. Russian constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, however, government application of law, bureaucratic regulation, and politically motivated criminal investigations have forced the press to exercise self-censorship constraining its coverage of certain controversial issues, resulting in infringements of these rights. According to Human Rights Watch, the Russian government exerts control over civil society through selective implementation of the law, restriction and censure. The 2002 Federal Law on Counteracting Extremist Activity codifies a definition of “extremism”, prohibits advocacy of extreme political positions, imposes liability on organizations that do not disavow the “extremist” statements of their members, and allows government authorities to suspend, without court order, social and religious organizations and political parties. In 2014, Russia strengthened criminal responsibility for crimes under Art. 280 (“public calls for extremist activity”), Art. 282 (“inciting hatred or hostility, and humiliation of human dignity”), Art. 282 Part 1 (“the organization of an extremist community”) and Art. 282 Part 2 (“the organization of an extremist organization”) of the Criminal Code. Under the strengthened laws, those convicted of “extremist activity” face up to six years in prison

Kerry Baldwin |  

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