Crossing the line: where ‘free speech’ ends

August 31, 2017

By Ed Byrne The Brillion News

Does the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have limits?

With the violence occurring in several places where the political far left and the political far right are facing off, the constitutional protection afforded free speech is under some question.

The text of the First Amendment is undisputed: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

But when a line is crossed and free expression becomes an act of violence, is that also protected?

Michael Ariens, Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, is a constitutional lawyer, and the author of the definitive textbook, American Constitutional Law & History.

Ariens grew up in Brillion, graduated from St. Norbert College with a degree in history, and graduated from law school at Marquette University. He received a Masters in Law from Harvard University.

“Neither side of these recent disputes seems to understand that free speech really is a value even when you disagree with the substance of what is being said,” Ariens said. “The general rule is that government should not be in the business of deciding who can say what. Instead, the government’s job is to protect, as a general rule, everyone’s speech, no matter what is said.”

But there are also limits, and some have recently been crossed.

Making threats is one of those barriers.

“You can’t come up to someone during a protest and threaten to harm them,” Ariens said. “You can’t engage in a kind of speech that will leave a person in fear and say things that are defamatory.”

He said that a person accusing an other of doing something had better have evidence, because “freedom of speech” does not allow for reckless accusations.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, White Nationalists who obtained a permit to protest the removal of Confederate statues were within their constitutional rights, Ariens said.

Please see the complete story in the August 31, 2017 edition of The Brillion News. 

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