FeatherPenClipArtThis is something that is generally misunderstood. The First Amendment of the US Constitution promises freedom of speech, which also includes freedom of the press. Other countries may or may not have similar provisions. The US Supreme Court has also ruled that a number of other forms of expression are covered by this amendment, such as symbolic gestures. Most people think this means they’re free to say whatever they want, whenever they want. However, this really is a misconception. The First Amendment only says the government can’t restrict freedom of speech. There have been some glaring infringements on this in recent years, but I won’t get into that here. The fact is that you can say what you want, but you have to take the consequence.

This means everyone needs to consider what they’re saying and whether it’s appropriate. The classic example is yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Because this can cause a stampede where people are hurt, it’s a safety issue. There are cases where private firms can restrict their employees’ speech because it represents the company, but in general, everything goes as far as the government is concerned.

There is no exception in the First Amendment for “hate speech.” However, there is a legal exception for “fighting words” and harassment. During the SFWA sexism scandal and the more recent Hugo kerfluffle, many exchanges fell into this category. When people engage in this kind of behavior, then it should be no surprise that there is a negative response such as name calling and further escalation of hostilities. The fact that the word “fascism” has entered the public commentary in a big way suggests ideological struggles in general are going over the line.