Freedom of Speech for All

Recently I read a story in the Dallas Morning News about the terrible behavior of people opposed to their school district’s regulations. A young student was beginning to speak about his grandfather’s death when a number of attendees at the school district meeting interrupted the speaker’s two-minute allotment showering the young man with boos, slurs, and signs opposing the speaker’s statement. The simple mention of his grandfather’s death was met with insulting “adult” behavior . My issue with the disruption was not the pros and cons about the issue being discussed but with the violation of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. The amendment clearly states that:

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.

Apparently, the angry members recalled the “freedom to peaceably assemble” portion but not the “freedom of speech” part of the amendment. Their behavior violated the freedom of speech part of the amendment.

Maybe the angry attendees felt their outbursts were provided by the First Amendment which gave them the right to speak. However, they refused to allow this Constitutional right to the young man’s speech. Freedom to speak allows/encourages people to speak, it doesn’t say one side should be allowed to speak but not the opposing side.

Perhaps, their behavior was only being impolite, rude, and disruptive. However, their actions brought the unwelcome attention of the media. They embarrassed their school district, town, state, and others who supported their view.

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.” – Frederick Douglas

“The right to free speech is more important than the content of the speech” – Voltaire

Freedom of speech includes the right:

  • Not to speak.
  • Of students to wear black armbands to school to protest a war.
  • To use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages.
  • To contribute money (under certain circumstances) to political campaigns.
  • To advertise commercial products and professional services (with some restrictions).
  • To engage in symbolic speech, (e.g., burning the flag in protest).

Freedom of speech does not include the right:

  • To incite actions that would harm others (e.g., “[S]hout[ing] ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”).
  • To make or distribute obscene materials.
  • To burn draft cards as an anti-war protest.
  • To permit students to print articles in a school newspaper over the objections of the school administration. 
  • Of students to make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event.
  • Of students to advocate illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event.


About Allen Mesch

Allen is an author, educator, and historian. He has written six books: The Analyst; Teacher of Civil War Generals; Your Affectionate Father, Charles F. Smith; Charles A. Marvin - "One Year. Six Months, and Eleven Days", Preparing for Disunion, and Ebenezer Allen - Statesman, Entrepreneur, and Spy. He taught classes on the American Civil War at Collin College. He has visited more than 130 Civil War sites and given presentations at Civil War Roundtables.
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