Whenever there is a controversial issue, whether it be a speaker on campus or the existence of millennials, there are two choruses: one which demands silence and the other which demands that demanding silence is nothing less than a restriction of Freedom of Speech. This oversimplification is a standard in internet conversations and it frames discussions that require much more nuance than what’s allowed in this strict dichotomy. Freedom of Speech is considered quintessential to the American identity. It is the spinal column of American liberty, with good reason. However, the phrase is tossed around so frequently without the context of its case law that it’s becoming meaningless in discourse surrounding censorship and flow of information, so much so that individuals will claim their liberty is at stake in the pettiest of peer disagreements. Despite common assumptions: you aren’t actually entitled to unlimited Speech, and you’re certainly not entitled to Speech when it comes to your peers.
The First Amendment is not a blanket promise that you may speak without any restriction or discretion. The First Amendment does not ensure you an audience, nor does it require that others affirm your speech. Limitations on speech have been belted out through court cases such as Snyder v. Phelps (in which the government can’t stop non-disruptive protests that are offensive but otherwise law abiding), Schenck v. United States (however, the government can stop protesters from encouraging unlawful actions such as burning draft cards), Tinker v. Des Moines (students are entitled to non-disruptive political speech), Morse v. Frederick (students are NOT entitled to meaningless endorsements of recreational marijuana use)… I could go on, but I’ll spare you. These cases protect an individual’s right to Free Speech, but under the assumption that they exercise that speech in a fashion that does not promote endangerment and with reasonable limitations to account for order and national security. These cases do not promise that your opinions will be met without argument. These cases do NOT protect individual citizens from other citizens.
Now let me put all of this into more relatable context. In one particular instance, I wrote a Facebook post critical of my classmates’ discussion on Japanese internment and national security during World War II. My perception was that the discussion was shallow and biased, if not bigoted. One of my Facebook friends, who was also in the class I was criticizing, commented to say that I was wrong. I wasn’t in the mood to explain myself further (I had already broken down my interpretation in previous comments) and his comment didn’t offer any new insight, so I deleted it. Keep in mind, this is my personal Facebook page, which is shared with some of my professional contacts. He posts the comment again, so this time I delete the new comment and I block him. He then proceeds to write a long winded status about how I’ve restricted his Freedom of Speech and promoted censorship in the face of controversy.
Although only one incident, this dynamic has been played out more than a few times in my interactions with others. I criticize a conversation or event, someone demands that I heed their claims otherwise, and then I ignore them because, well, I can. In the aftermath I’m accused of oppressing their liberty and maintaining ignorance. The truth of the matter is that a) it is impossible for me to impose on their constitutionally enshrined Freedom of Speech because I’m a fellow civilian. Now, were I a government entity using my influence to silence them through institutions such as police forces and arrest warrants, then the situation would be quite different; and b) what information I choose to consume is mine alone to choose. Is it healthy to listen to opposing views? Of course, that’s how we make educated decisions and formulate informed opinions. However, not every opposing view is of the same quality and relevance, and if I gave time to every individual who demanded it I would have very little for much else.
So, feel free to speak openly and promote discourse in your personal life, but just remember, in the words of Frank Underwood: You are entitled to nothing (at least from your fellow citizen).