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The real meaning of ‘freedom of speech’

Posted: July 17, 2014 4:28 p.m.
Updated: July 18, 2014 5:00 a.m.

With today’s plethora of online news and the subsequent discussion forums that accompany most Internet articles, there is a lot of confusion on the somewhat vague thing called “freedom of speech.” Really, it’s not vague at all, but it sure seems to be quite vague to those who don’t really know what it means. What it doesn’t mean is you have the right to say whatever you want to whenever you want to without consequences.

I turned to our old friend Wikipedia.com for an explanation of The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Here’s what it said:

“The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.”

It clearly says the amendment “prohibits the making of any law” that infringes on free speech or freedom of the press, plus some other things like religion and peaceful assembly.

I have thought on this subject for many years and, as a journalist, I feel I have a better understanding of it than most people. What inspired me to write this column is the flap that came up last week when the popular social media website Facebook chose to take down a photo that showed a young girl’s bare bottom. The story went that a family was at a beach or pool or wherever and the girl’s friend pulled her swimsuit down, exposing her bottom. The mother thought the scene looked a lot like the old advertisements for Coppertone suntan lotion, in which a little girl’s swimsuit is partially pulled off by her dog, exposing her tan lines -- an iconic advertisement from days gone by, to be sure. So, the mother snapped a quick photo and posted it on Coppertone’s Facebook page. She thought it was cute.

Facebook has policies and rules regarding nude photos and the powers that be decided the photo violated those rules and they took the photo off the site, banned the mother from Facebook for 24 hours and told her if that photo or another like it appeared, her account would be closed permanently. That’s when the online fur started flying, with some people saying Facebook had violated her First Amendment rights. Not even close.

I liken Facebook to a private club, one that we are all invited to join. But when we join any club we agree to abide by their rules. If we don’t, they can kick us out of the club, just like any other private club in existence. It has been argued back and forth that in this case the photo was cute and harmless and Facebook is obviously without a sense of humor or even a soul. That’s not the point at all. It’s their club, it’s their rules. If you disagree with them so much, boycott the site. Start your own social media site and allow on it whatever you think is proper. Mark Zuckerberg did it; so can you.

About 11 years ago, a certain country music group, their lead singer actually, criticized Pres. George W. Bush at a London concert. The backlash was swift, as country radio stations dropped the group from their playlists and their CD and concert ticket sales plummeted. Supporters of the group jumped on that “Freedom of Speech” bandwagon and said their rights were being violated by the radio stations that wouldn’t play their music. Again, a huge swing and a miss. She had every right to say what she said, but on the other side of that coin, the radio industry and the music buying public had every right to shun her and the group as well. In fact, she exercised her freedom of speech so much she continued to offend country music fans and other country music artists while her career took a nosedive, crashed and burned.

There was never a law passed or even proposed to keep that group from making more CDs or scheduling more concerts or doing interviews. If there had been, that would have been a violation of The First Amendment. Rights do come with responsibility. A lot of people have either forgotten that, or never knew it at all.

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