A “Free Speech” Primer

Seeing as how there are far too many members of our community who apparently are not familiar with the limits of “Free Speech” (in the United States – it’s different in other countries), here are some resources to help you better understand them.

Note: the political “lean” or bias of the individual sites linked to below may be evaluated on AllSides.com.

From the Hoover Institution a public policy think tank.

Synopsis: The basic principal: You are not allowed to harm others (with speech) to get what you want.

You are not allowed to use speech to verbally or non-verbally harm someone.

You are not allowed to deceive people with false information to get what you want. (That is called “fraud”). The harm is caused by a reliance on false information.

You may not defame or advocate for the immediate use of force, or intentionally misrepresent the truth.

From PBS.

PBS is an American public broadcaster and television program distributor. It is a nonprofit organization and the most prominent provider of educational television programming to public television stations in the United States.

Synopsis: The primary purpose of the First Amendment is to allow for criticism of government.

Free speech does allow for speech that is not respectful or in bad taste.

The First Amendment only applies to GOVERNMENTAL interference in free expression. It has no bearing on anyone else.

Not all speech is created equal. Political speech is given wider latitude. This was set into law by the Brandenburg vs Ohio Supreme Court Case where the ruling stated: “The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a state to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent action and is likely to produce such action.” Note, however, that those objecting to the content on Baen’s Bar are NOT governmental actors.

This also applies to “symbolic” speech – the wearing of armbands or the carrying of signs, for example, though there are greater limits on such speech. You can not hold up a sign saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at a school function (the school being a governmental actor).

There are other “down in the weeds” exceptions as well; physical violence is not “speech”, spending money on political campaigns is.

From The Atlantic

Synopsis: Free speech issues online are becoming increasingly important and complicated.

Politicians using an online social media site for political advocacy removes that site from the private sector and places it in the public sphere, subjecting it to the freedoms and restrictions of the First Amendment. This is a new area of law and is still being sorted out. (Trumps’ twitter account was ruled to be a public forum and therefore, speech critical of the then President could not be blocked. This case is currently on appeal.)


Any argument regarding a violation of free speech must first determine whether a government actor is involved. If so, then there are far different boundaries than those for “private” individuals and institutions.

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