Kathryn Page Camp
What are our First Amendment rights in today’s political, religious, and racially charged atmosphere? And why is it so important to keep our discussions civil?
There are many myths about the First Amendment. As a lawyer who has written two books that cover First Amendment issues, I feel qualified to dispel them.
1. Myth: Private entities and individuals are bound by the First Amendment. The First Amendment only applies to government action. If a public library bans your book because of the subject matter or the position it takes on an issue, you may have an argument under the First Amendment. If a private bookstore refuses to carry the book for the same reason, you don’t. But you may not be able to force the library to stock it, either. Although a public library is a governmental entity, it may have a perfectly valid reason to refuse to place the book on its shelves. That’s because—
2. Myth: Freedom of Speech is an absolute right. Freedom of Speech rights are subject to limited qualifications. For example, the First Amendment does not give anyone the right to riot or destroy property or disrupt traffic or trespass on private property. It also limits the use of libelous and fighting words, obscenity, and speech advocating illegal conduct. And a library has only so much shelf room and money for books, so it cannot stock every one that comes its way. As long as it uses objective criteria that are viewpoint neutral, it can refuse to carry your book.
3. Myth: If I’m on public property, I can say whatever I want, whenever I want. Governments can place reasonable restrictions on the where, when, and how of speech on public property if those restrictions do not discriminate based on religious, political, or other content. For example, a town may not prohibit people from handing out leaflets on public sideways but it may use anti-litter ordinances to fine them for leaving a stack of flyers unattended on the municipal building steps. And nobody has the right to disrupt public business by conducting a sit-in on the floor of the legislature or shouting at the participants while a trial is in progress.
Even with these limitations, the First Amendment gives us precious rights that don’t exist in many countries. As Americans, and especially as Americans who write, we should all have an interest in preserving them.
Yes, the First Amendment protects name-calling and swearing and knee-jerk opinions by prohibiting the government from banning and punishing them. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. One way to preserve Freedom of Speech is to keep the discussion civil. It’s only when Americans pass these boundaries that people start losing their respect for the First Amendment.
Even when I disagree with someone, I agree with this quote often attributed to Voltaire:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
The First Amendment gives us the freedom to say what we want even when others disagree, and that’s one reason I’m glad to be an American.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.