This week, a student by the name of Matt asked, "What are laws against Freedom of Speech in America?" First, Matt, despite the statement in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech," most people argue in favor of limiting freedom of expression in certain specific situations.
If the First Amendment were interpreted to mean that there could no no laws at all limiting speech, people would be able to say anything they wanted at any time they wanted. People could lie in court and deprive others their right to a fair trial. People could scream in libraries, schools, give political speeches in the middle of funerals, church sermons, or speak through loudspeakers in neighborhoods any time night or day.
The First Amendment should not be interpreted to protect freedom of expression in situations such as those above. In some situations, limiting freedom to speak may actually increase a person's ability to be heard. Example: there are rules governing when someone may talk at a meeting or debate. You may have the right to protest a government policy you do not like, but you do not have the right to do so with a loudspeaker in a residential area all hours of night and day.
These limitations on freedom of expression are referred to as time, place, and manner restrictions. They govern when, where, and how you may speak, not what you may say. Most people agree that these limitations do not violate the right to free expression so long as they do not make it difficult or impossible for you to express your ideas to others. These regulations must not favor some opinions over others. Example: one group may not be given a permit to speak in a public park when other groups are forbidden to do so.
In asking the Supreme Court what are limits of freedom expression, should there be limits to protect other important social goals? The Supreme Court has upheld time, place, and manner restrictions so long as they are neutral and applied fairly.
The idea of neutrality is important, for the Court has generally taken the position that no matter how dangerous or obnoxious the ideas, people should be allowed to express their views freely.
Yet the Court will sometimes allow speech to be limited based on its content. Over the years, the courts have developed guidelines to use in balancing the right to free expression against other important rights and interest of society. Example: suppose your right to free expression could or would endanger the public safety or national security. If the danger is considered great enough, the courts will decide that your fight to free speech must be limited. No one has the right to publish secret military information, or the names of United States Intelligence agents overseas, for example.
The courts have upheld laws prohibiting speech or writings that present a clear and present danger to others or to society. Examples include giving away national security secrets, lying under oath, or libel--ruining other people's reputations by knowingly spreading lies about them. The courts also have said that you may not engage in speech that could directly lead to violence or cause a riot.
Next week, more on First Amendment and Freedom of Speech, Matt. Source: We the People.