Freedom of speech concerns pop up in so many places. And freedom of speech always seems so misunderstood.
Consider the story published last week in the Herald that showed how most state lawmakers have social-media accounts and how so many lawmakers use social media to relay information to constituents. The report, which was written by Jack Dura of the Bismarck Tribune, noted that 126 of 141 North Dakota lawmakers have some sort of presence on Facebook or Twitter. Most lawmakers are on Facebook, the report noted, “where a number of questionable posts have arisen in recent years.”
Legislative leaders say social media use – and what lawmakers say on social media – is up to each lawmaker’s individual judgment. That judgment, it seems, is sometimes flawed.
“They’re responsible to their constituents,” Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said.
And that’s as it should be. Lawmakers should be able to speak directly to constituents, updating them on legislative progress, important lawmaking news and so forth. To us, it’s a good way to instantly communicate, especially as emails and telephone messages stack up for these busy lawmakers.
Yet some lawmakers have had missteps on social media, and some have questioned whether their “freedom of speech” has been impinged.
It has not. Most definitely it has not.
United States citizens all have the right to freedom of speech, which guarantees protection from government censorship and, generally, from legal repercussions. It includes not just words (spoken, written or sung) but it also includes movies, art, clothing or even symbolic speech, such as burning a U.S. flag – which is, in our opinion, a despicable act undertaken only by the most unpatriotic, peacocking cads. Of course, because of the First Amendment, we can say that.
Some speech is not protected by the First Amendment, including true threats, defamation, incitement of lawless acts, perjury and blackmail.
A newspaper choosing not to publish a submitted letter or advertisement also is not impinging free speech.
And lawmakers and others getting backlash for their ill-advised comments on social media isn’t either. Same thing goes for newspapers: If readers react strongly to our written words, that reaction is not a violation of our rights to free speech, but simply an example of the readers’ same right.
Some people say stupid things on social media, and sometimes, intense reaction follows. Correctly practicing the right of free speech still can have consequences and repercussions; jobs can be lost, lawmakers can be voted out of office and public backlash can be vicious.
But confusing that reaction to actually losing the right to free speech shows a great misunderstanding of a very basic American tenet.