The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech and is, as such, considered one of the most important protections that exist in a democratic society. Without free speech protections, citizens would have a hard time challenging their government or speaking freely about the issues that matter to them. A democratic system can only exist when citizens are free to argue, debate, and voice their opinions without fear of punishment or retribution. Free speech, however, does have limits. While the First Amendment is an important right granted to all U.S. citizens, there are certain forms of speech that are prohibited. Here’s a look at a few of them.
Defamation, slander and libel
Defamation is not protected by the First Amendment. When defamation occurs in speech it is referred to as slander and when in print it is called libel. While defamation does not count as free speech, defining what defamation is can get tricky. Defamation is essentially a lie that can harm a person’s reputation. However, not all statements that can harm a person’s reputation count as defamation. Basically, the statement has to be a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts to be defamatory. Spreading a lie that an individual is on a sex offender registry, for example, when you know that that individual is not on any such registry would count as defamation. Merely expressing a negative opinion about that same individual’s character and temperament, however, would not count as defamation since such opinions are not being presented as facts.
Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, although what counts as obscenity is constantly being challenged. Many items that were labelled obscene just a few decades ago, for example, are now easily accessible by the majority of the public. The Supreme Court has devised a test for obscenity that takes into account whether the item appeals to contemporary society’s view of what would be considered prurient, whether it depicts sexual conduct that is patently offensive based on state law, and whether the item has any artistic, literary, scientific, or political merit.
Crime and safety
Finally, the First Amendment does not allow people to say things that may lead to criminal acts or endanger public safety. Saying something that could cause public panic, such as claiming you have a bomb on a plane, for example, is not protected by free speech laws. Likewise, inciting another person or group to commit a crime is also not protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, the First Amendment does not allow for sedition, which is speech that advocates for the violent overthrow of the government or committing crimes against the government.
While the First Amendment is one of the most important rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, it does not give citizens the right to say absolutely anything. As the above article shows, important restrictions on First Amendment rights do exist and may help protect people from defamation, obscenity, crime, and danger. Of course, drawing the line between what is protected by the First Amendment and what is not is an ongoing controversy that provokes plenty of heated debate.