A First Amendment Primer (Since Some of Y’all Are Confused)

First Amendment of the US Constitution text, with other Constitution text above

A First Amendment Primer (Since Some of Y’all Are Confused)

The number of adult humans who don’t understand how the First Amendment works and what censorship truly looks like is sad, astounding, and expected all as the same time. This isn’t a Millennials/Gen Z problem, nor is it a Boomer problem (us Gen Xers are doing just fine…no we’re not). This lack of ability to grasp the First Amendment’s meaning and application spans every living generation in the United States. I can’t even blame poor schooling for this. People from public and private schools, from Ivy League and State universities are all spouting off right now about how Donald trump’s de-platforming is somehow “censorship” and a violation of his free speech. I HATED Social Studies in school. It was the most boring class at all levels of my education, in all the forms it took. And STILL, I understand exactly what the First Amendment says, means, and how it applies (or at least SHOULD apply) to my life in this country. So since you possibly didn’t comprehend what you should have learned in your 7th grade Civics class, let us break down what the First Amendment, what it entails, and what censorship actually looks like.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States says:

“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.”

In a nutshell, this means worship how you like, say what you like, write what you like, assemble how you like. You are not barred from that. You are even allowed to say negative things, whether It’s about Steve across the street or about the government. All of that is protected under the First Amendment.

HOWEVER, your free expression ENDS when it infringes on another person’s ability to freely express. The most common (boring) example is yelling, “FIRE”, in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. Doing that infringes on the rest of the audience’s ability to enjoy the show, it potentially sows panic in the crowd, and it could potentially kill someone as the panicked crowd tries to escape the theatre. By yelling “FIRE”, you just infringed on about 100 people’s own First Amendment rights.

Another example is negative speech. If I hate my neighbor Steve, I can express that hate. But the second I try to stop Steve from living his life, or if I tell others to infringe on Steve’s right to live his life, I not only have I crossed the boundary of my own free speech, but I have also infringed on Steve’s


NOT PROTECTED SPEECH: I am going to kill Steve, because he sucks.

PROTECTED SPEECH: Hey guys, we all think Steve sucks, right?

NOT PROTECTED SPEECH: Hey guys, let’s burn down Steve’s house, because he sucks.

PROTECTED SPEECH: Niggers are lower beings and don’t deserve the same opportunities.

NOT PROTECTED SPEECH: Let’s go punish those niggers for taking opportunities.

PROTECTED SPEECH: This election is a sham, and I don’t recognize it.

NOT PROTECTED SPEECH: I encourage you to drive to the Capitol and block Congress from certifying this election that I don’t recognize.

This is truly not difficult, but I will admit that there are grey areas that people exploit all the time. White supremacists Don Black and David Duke would use ambivalent language when inciting violence to get away with saying the most vile things about non-white people. They would use terms like “If only someone would…”, and “Someone should…”, and then when someone would commit a hate crime after listening to them, they had plausible deniability. Even trump did this during his campaign. He would “reminisce” about how if someone disrupted a speech or conference back in the day, they would leave the conference in a stretcher. Interestingly, the most prescient example of such a disruption was the Madison Square Garden nazi rally of 1939, where a Jewish detractor tried to rush the stage and was beaten by participants and the police. Not much has changed.

It is solely the government’s job to prosecute people who incite violence through speech. No private company has that responsibility, but sometimes a company may be viewed liable for enabling the violence, if not by the government, then by the public, who may not consume their product if they don’t like it. Since they are private entities, they can make their own rules about what is and is not okay to on their products. So trump was not “censored” when he lost his Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Spotify, Youtube, Google, Pinterest, Reddit, and Twitch (???) access. None of these are government entities. Trump has a whole room in the White House where he can say anything he wants to say publicly, and the press will broadcast it. Of course, most press agencies are private, too, so if they choose to not show up and record him, that is their choice. If you would like to see what ACTUAL censorship looks like, look at France, that explicitly prohibits hate speech of any kind, or Germany, who prohibits the display of ANY nazi symbolism and makes Holocaust denial illegal speech. I am completely fine with those limits on speech, but if you don’t like that, then you don’t have to go to those countries.

I hopefully have not lost you. The First Amendment is really a simple rule and concept. Speech is still free in America. You can say anything you want to say. You cannot expect to say everything you want to say and be absolved of people or companies reacting to what you said. If I say something publicly that my boss does not like, I might get fired. Thanks to excessive relaxing of union and labor laws over the last 20 years, that ironically most people claiming “censorship” now heralded, it is even easier for an employer to fire someone, too. Your private company is not obligated to provide you a job.

Speaking of private businesses, a lot of the anti-discrimination laws of the 1960s and ‘70s were opposed by people who claimed that they would violate a business owner’s right to free speech. This line was backed by people like rabid segregationist strom thurmond and jesse helms, and even religious leaders like bob jones and jerry falwell used this to claim that forcing companies to comply with anti-segregation and anti-discrimination laws was a violation of company owners’ “freedom of religion”. Until recently, those arguments were shouted down (barely), as it was established that segregation and discrimination negatively affects the target’s own right to live freely. Today, though, “freedom of religion” is the excuse people use to deny LGBTQ folks THEIR rights. And the excuse is, “Well they are private companies”. However, unless the cake is laced with cyanide, there is no way baking a cake would impinge on anyone’s rights.

If you would like to see what an actual violation of free speech is, please look at the number of times rap lyrics are submitted as evidence in court trials. Men and women are being prosecuted for violent crimes and their fictional words are being used against them, and they are being convicted, despite no real tangible evidence of them committing any crime. Also there is the case of Rakem Balogun, A man who was labeled a “Black Identity Extremist” by the FBI and jailed after posting an unsavory comment on Facebook about a dead cop. These are times that free speech is ACTUALLY violated. Twitter isn’t prosecuting these cases; the US government is. Interestingly, the folks claiming “censorship” today are deafeningly silent about this.

If this is truly about censorship from private entities, then I cannot recall when the “censorship” folks today spoke up about the censorship of Black and Brown folks and Women and Queer folks when they would speak up about violent racism or sexual assault or queerphobia. And most of the time they were relaying things people actually said and/or did to them. How is it that the screenshots of a person threatening one’s life yields a ban, yet the person doing the threatening faces no consequences?

As I said, the First Amendment is quite simple (despite me taking 1,000 words to say it, and a great rule, despite the cost of hate speech existing. The good thing is that the hate can be freely ignored, and no one owes the hateful speaker a platform. They can provide their own soapbox. Also, when the hate speech leans violent, the freedom of it ends. Even New York State understood that when they still allow confederate flags but banned display of nooses even on private property, because a confederate flag says, “I am a racist who likely doesn’t know my history”, but a noose says, “I am going to kill someone, probably a Black guy”.

I will say, it is not lost on me that most of the people I see making claims of censorship and free speech violations are straight white males. Not saying they weren’t in the same Social Studies and Civics classes that I was. Maybe they aced the class. However, maybe you subconsciously know that the rules have always been flexible for them.

About Chris Thompson

(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is http://www.chroniclesofnonesense.com

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