Free Speech and Consequences

“He who keeps his mouth and his tongue
keeps himself out of trouble.”
Proverbs 21:23

As a civil rights attorney in Pennsylvania, I am often asked questions about our constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. Many individuals misunderstand this constitutional liberty and misapply it as well. Although the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making a law that would abridge the Freedom of Speech, it does not promise freedom from the consequences of our speech.

Even with this Constitutional Amendment that prohibits governmental interference with our speech, the Supreme Court has made a few exceptions to an outright prohibition of regulation. For instance, the government has been allowed to restrict speech in the areas of obscenity, pornography, inciting riots, and intellectual property. The government may also make restrictions based on time, place, and manner if the restrictions are content-neutral. We all know, for example, that a person can not legally yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre. Because of these permissible restrictions, and because the Constitution only limits the government’s interference, our right to free speech is not absolute.

Despite these limitations, many Americans have the belief that our right to Freedom of Speech is the equivalent to a freedom from consequences. In doing so, many are attempting to justify their poorly chosen words, inappropriate behavior, and offensive language as somehow beneficial to society. Do we still live in a society where governmental infringement on freedom of speech is an issue? Yes. As long as we have government, we have the potential for the violation of our civil liberties. That does not give us the permission to say whatever we want, whenever we want, and to whomever we want, simply to test the boundaries. We must be wise in our words to one another, and compassionate in our actions.

If you want your speech to be a force for good, then choose your words wisely. Improper use of our freedom of speech will only work to increase the potential for less freedom. President John Adams has famously stated, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” If you need legal help with a free speech issue, contact the Pennsylvania constitutional and civil rights lawyers in York and Lancaster for help at