After Charlottesville, A Primer to the First Amendment

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These words are famously attributed to enlightenment era philosopher Voltaire. In a nutshell, this quote guides our freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. Just before the now infamous rally in Charlottesville, the city tried to move the rally from downtown, citing safety reasons. However a Federal Judge issued an injunction against the city, allowing the rally to continue in the park. Why?

The late Justice Thurgood Marshall once stated “The First Amendment above all else means that the government may not restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter, or content.” Furthermore due to the “Public Forum Doctrine”, the place where speech takes place is important. Places that are traditionally public forums, such as city streets or public parks give way to much greater freedom of speech than nonpublic forums such as a classroom. While the government can place restrictions on speech as to time, place and manner, it must do so in a content neutral way.

What about hate speech? A recent Pew Research Poll found that 40% of millennials believe that the government should prevent people from communicating messages that are offensive to minorities. Unless this hate speech is 1) Incitement to imminent lawless acts 2) fighting words or 3) true threats, then hate speech is protected. The law relies on what is called “The Marketplace of Ideas” to root out hate speech. The theory is that when speech is freely exchanged, ideas will rise and fall on their own merits.

Freedom of speech is perhaps the most important liberty we enjoy. Remember, our forefathers and foremothers were once considered to be espousing radical viewpoints, as were civil rights activists in the 1960s. We would not need first amendment protection for those views which are mainstream and views that would leave our country at a standstill. We need the first amendment to move forward as a country. The best ideas will eventually win out.