What Are The Limits On Free Speech?

limits on free speech in the U.S.
Defamation law attorney Aaron Kelly answers questions about the limits on free speech.

What do speech, press, religion, and petition freedoms afford U.S. Citizens?

The freedoms to speech, press, religion, and petition guarantee that each U.S. citizen can express themselves safely and openly. It means we can:

  1. Publicly disagree with authorities;
  2. Practice a religion, of our own choosing, without fear of persecution;
  3. Have a media industry that reports on government mistakes and happenings;
  4. it means we can gather, and en masse, to let our voices be heard on social and political matters.

Are There Limits On Free Speech?

There are limits to freedom of speech, and those limits boil down to public safety and honesty. The classic example of unprotected speech is screaming fire in a crowded room when there is no fire, as the welfare of the citizenry becomes paramount. Another example: protests require permits to ensure proper safety requirements are met.

Religious Issues & Limits on Free Speech

As for religion, well, that’s a little more nuanced, as many religions hold beliefs contradictory to secular la. But one thing is for sure, the courts don’t like ruling on religious matters.

Anonymous Defamation

A big issue these days is online defamation.  People are less careful about what they say online. Moreover, from a procedural standpoint, Internet anonymity presents another layer of litigation, as plaintiffs must first uncover the legal names of their accusers. In anonymous situations, many people use a freedom of speech as a defense to keep their names from entering public records; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Online Censorship Timeline

Easy, since the beginning. Well, maybe not Tim Burners Lee beginning, but for arguments sake, let’s just say that once the public merged onto “the information super highway” (remember when that was the phrase), it was on. In the early years, copyright infringement and defamation were used as litigation tools  to censor online content. And back then, before the DMCA and Section 230 of the CDA, website operators were not protected from third-party liability.

How Can We Fight Online Censorship?

I wish I had the answer! If I did, I’d be living la vida Gates.

But in all seriousness, it’s a complicated question because the possible permutations are endless. Generally speaking, what we need are laws that both allow for Internet freedom, foster innovation, and protect businesses from unfair and deceptive defamation.

What are some common censorship targets?

Depends on where you are. I wrote a story a couple of weeks ago about a guy who was charged with defamation for talking unkindly about the King of Thailand online. Would that ever happen in the United States? Probably not. Heck, some of the most successful Web outlets were built on the backs of government criticism.

To sift through slander and libel laws from different countries, head to International Defamation Database.

If you’re only interested in U.S. law and limits on free speech, head here to the U.S. defamation database, which includes federal standards, plus a summary of laws for each state.