Free speech doesn’t mean what a lot of people think it means

Frequently the first thing people cry out when some business or individual tells them they can’t say something is, “hey, I have a first amendment right to say whatever I want!” These people are, of course, speaking of the part of the first amendment that addresses free speech. And, as it happens, these people are wrong. If a business or an individual tells you not to say something or not to express something in a certain way, unless he or she uses the power of the government to force your silence, he is not violating your first amendment rights to free speech.

Requires a Government Actor

The first amendment and its clause about free speech actually only protects us against government actors. For example, if you are walking down the street wearing a t-shirt that reads, “I hate cops” and a police officer stops you and arrests you for your shirt. Well that would definitely be a violation of your right to free speech. The cop is a government actor and he is using his power as a government actor to punish you for what you are saying, and also, using his governmental authority to silence your speech.

On the other hand, if you walk into a restaurant wearing a t-shirt that reads, “I hate cops” and the restaurant owner says, “Hey, I hate you! Now get out of my restaurant,” that isn’t a violation of your right to free speech.  Yes, you legally have the right to wear your shirt, but the owner of the restaurant legally has the right to refuse to serve you because of that shirt. If you refuse to leave the restaurant when you are told to do so, and the owner calls the cops, you could be arrested. Not for your t-shirt, but for trespass.In fact, if some random drunken moron walked up to you and punched you in the face for wearing your shirt, while he certainly would have committed an assault and/or battery, he still wouldn’t have violated your rights to free speech.

Current Example

The issue of free speech rights and when they are violated comes up a lot. Most recently it came up in relation to the Baltimore Ravens and Brendon Ayanbadejo. Ayanbadejo, of course, has been very vocal in support of gay marriage. A Maryland House of Delegates member, Emmett C. Burns, Jr., complained to the Ravens. The Ravens told Burns to go pound sand. And good for them.

Ayanbadejo has repeatedly stated how he is pleased for the support and angry that Burns tried to interfere with his right to free speech. Burns did no such thing. Burns has the right to speak his mind. And the Ravens might, or might not, have the right to tell Ayanbadejo what he may or may not say. It would depend on his contract.

While Burns could be a government actor, he wasn’t in this case. Perhaps he tried to use the bully pulpit of his position to convince the Ravens to do what he wanted, but that is all he did. Well that and come across as a prize jerk and a moron for thinking he had a right to stick his nose in where it didn’t belong.

If Burns were to use his government position to actually try to stop Ayanbadejo from speaking, say he had him arrested, or threatened the tax breaks to the Ravens, now that would be a free speech issue. But just complaining on the part of Burns? Not a free speech issue. And nor would it be a free speech issue if the Ravens, a nongovernmental organization, told Ayabadejo that he had to shut up.


Yes, in our society we have the right to speak. But on the other hand, other people have the right to tune us out or even to tell us to shut the heck up. And I am glad this is so. After all, a lot of people say a lot of stupid things. I don’t know how we could possibly stop all the headache inducing noise if we couldn’t say to some people, “would you please just be quiet?” And then, blissfully walk away into the silence.

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