Anytime I hear someone get outraged over a perceived infringement on their “freedom of speech,” I can’t help but think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride:
People think the concept of “free speech” protects them from any form of dissent or ridicule.
The first amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Often, people reference this when discussing the concept of “free speech” or “freedom of religion.” But nothing is ever truly “free.” Free speech, as outlined in the Constitution, has its limits. For example, speech that incites lawless action, “fighting words,” credible threats, obscenity, child pornography, defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, commercial speech, government speech, public employee speech, student speech and speech related to national security are not protected under the US constitution.
For the speech that is protected, it’s important to remember that freedom of speech, as outlined in the Constitution (I apologize for my Americentricism), protects you from criminal penalties or government-induced sanctions. It does not protect you from ridicule, does not shield you from dissent, and most importantly, it does not grant you a platform or non-governmental position.
Over the past several years, a number of situations have come up that have led individuals and groups to claim that their free speech was somehow being infringed upon, when in reality, nothing of the sort happened.
In response to inflammatory anti-gay remarks by author and National Organization for Marriage board member, Orson Scott Card, several groups have called for a boycott of an upcoming movie based on his 1984 sci-fi novel Ender’s Game.
In 2012, after homophobic statements by Chick-fil-a CEO Dan Cathy and the revelation that millions of dollars have been donated to anti-LGBT groups through Chick-fil-a’s charitable arm, the WinShape Foundation, some LGBT activists called for a boycott of Chick-fil-a restaurants.
In both of the above aforementioned examples, supporters of Card and Cathy claimed the free speech of their leader of choice had been infringed upon. The Los Angeles Times went as far as to give a platform to these anti-boycott protesters on “Chick-fil-a Appreciation Day,” an event invented by former Arkansas governor (and author of a book about weight loss, ironically enough), Mike Huckabee.“Some said they were standing up for his right to express his opinions without facing boycotts by those who disagree with him,” the LA Times states, never once mentioning that no such right to a freedom from boycott exists.
Boycotts are free speech. If you, as a consumer, don’t want to spend money at a certain business or see the film adaptation of a book written by a homophobic author, you’re under no obligation to. No one has a right to be free from criticism, which would actually infringe upon the free speech rights of others. You can debate whether or not you believe a boycott or someone’s criticism is fair, but you can’t silence those who disagree.
A misunderstanding of free speech runs particularly rampant when it comes to employment or providing an audience to someone. No one has an intrinsic right to an audience, nor is a business compelled to employ someone who uses their right to speech to damage their company’s image.
A recent example is the firing of Business Insider’s Chief Technology Officer, Pax Dickinson. After being made aware of tweets containing sexist language and racial slurs, Dickinson was forced to resign from Business Insider, with Henry Blodget providing a statement to the press shortly thereafter.
In an attempt to get ahead of the predictable “Save Pax! His Twitter feed is free speech!” cries that are bound to happen, I just want to say this: No. Business Insider was no more required to employ Pax Dickinson than Food Network was to employ Paula Deen after revelations of past racist statements emerged. Just like Carrie Prejean, runner-up in the Miss USA 2009 pageant, who claimed that she didn’t win because of her answer to a question about same-sex marriage (this may be true), and therefore, that was a violation of her free speech (this is false), it seems that the country has a fundamental misunderstanding of what the first amendment actually says.
So no, don’t “Save Pax” under the guise that this is just about protecting his “free speech.” “Save Pax” if you agree with his sexist and racist comments.