Good Question: How Free Is Speech?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When Hank Williams, Jr. first opened his mouth on “Fox and Friends” and didn’t sing “Are you ready for some football?” he was already in trouble. First he talked about President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner playing golf together:

“It’d be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu,” he said.

Then he added, “They’re the enemy.”

The anchor asked, “Who’s the enemy?”

Williams, Jr. said, “Obama and Biden!”

When ESPN decided they’d no longer use the famous Williams, Jr. song to open “Monday Night Football,” he lashed out saying, “By pulling my opening Oct. 3, You (ESPN) stepped on the toes of the First Amendment — freedom of speech.”

“No non-governmental entity can step on the toes of the First Amendment,” said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. “They can offend the concept of free speech but the First Amendment protects us from government interference not by private individuals or private companies.”

The text of the First Amendment is clear: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

The Fourteenth Amendment extends that to the states, essentially prohibiting government from abridging the freedom of speech.

“Why do you think people so misunderstand the First Amendment?” asked WCCO-TV reporter Jason DeRusha.

“Because they’ve never read it,” responded Kirtley. “They think freedom is speech is so fundamental in this society, it is for everybody and everything.”

So while you may have the right to say anything, most companies also have the right to fire you because of it.

“We have no insulation from the consequences of what we say,” Kirtley added.

The government holds political speech at the highest level of protection, but there are other types of speech that can be limited — time, place, and manner restrictions.

“Incitement to riot, falsely shouting fire, obscenity, those are about the only things limited by the government,” said Kirtley.

Of course, defining “speech” isn’t always easy. The Supreme Court has ruled that Flag Burning is speech. Nudity isn’t speech, unless it’s attached to dance or theater. Signing a political petition is considered speech.

And talking on “Fox and Friends” is certainly speech.

“We certainly believe in freedom of speech for things we agree with. The problem is supporting that right for people we disagree with,” said Kirtley.

More from Jason DeRusha

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