Free Speech

Free Speech Protections

Free speech includes more than just words. For Any expressive conduct may be considered speech for First Amendment purposes. For instance, messages on t-shirts or bumper stickers are forms of speech. So is dancing, and even erotic dancing may be considered a form of expression and therefore a type of protected speech. Many symbolic acts, such as flag burning, are also protected forms of speech, since they are intended to convey a certain message. The very fact flag burning is so emotional and controversial proves it is a very powerful form of speech, and therefore worthy of constitutional protection, according to the courts.

While many words and physical acts are considered “protected speech” not all communications are guaranteed protection from government interference. The U.S. Supreme Court has identified several categories of speech which are not protected, meaning, the government can make laws outlawing these communications. Penalties for violating prohibited speech law include fines, arrest, probation, judgments, community service, and in some cases imprisonment. Types of speech which are not protected include but are not limited to: defamation, obscenity, national security, and fighting words, inciting panic/riots. Defamation refers to both libel (published false statement) and slander (spoken fake comment) and is broadly defined as actions damaging the good reputation of another person.

Depending on the speech type, the government may make regulations, such as placing reasonable time, place, or manner restrictions. Requiring parade/large assembly permits before marching through a street, or prohibiting using sound trucks in certain neighborhoods or during specific hours, demonstrate acceptable free speech restrictions. Unreasonable restrictions, or regulations which are selectively applied against certain groups or beliefs, may be challenged in court.

The guarantees of free speech are protection against government action and intrusion. This includes laws, regulations, and ordinances at all levels of government, including federal, state and municipal. Actions by non-governmental actors, are not covered. Freedom of Speech is a bedrock societal, yet, unfortunately, police and government officials constantly lack understanding, misapply the law, or simply desire silencing dissent.

Further, government employees, including federal, state and local government workers, possess civil rights,  immunities, and liberties guaranteed respectively by the United States, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois Constitutions. Civil rights violations committed against government employees often come in the forms of harassment and wrongful discharge. Civil rights violations against state and municipal employees also can take the form of demotions, failures to promote, suspensions, and other adverse employment actions.

If someone has threatened your First Amendment rights, we very likely can successfully handle the case. In doing so, we would not turn anyone away because their speech is unpopular. The central point for free speech and the First Amendment is expressing ideas which are not always held by the majority. There is no need to Constitutionally protect speech everyone likes, the buffers exist precisely to protect the communications which challenge our beliefs and which push us outside our normal comfort zones.

Student Free Speech

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech for public and private school students. The 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown, reaffirmed minor children’s First Amendment Rights in a decision ruling a California law restricting minors’ access to violent video games violated the First Amendment. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has also made clear that students do not enjoy the full extent of First Amendment rights that adults do. In several decisions, the Supreme Court has balanced the free speech rights of students against the legitimate need of school officials to maintain a safe, functional, and productive educational environment. After all, a school is not a public square where people come and go at will and are allowed, in general, to speak freely. A school has a particular mission—to educate students—and the First Amendment allows schools to institute policies and rules that promote that mission, even at the cost of a reasonable limitation on student expression.

The Supreme Court’s bars schools from interfering with a student’s free speech rights unless the expression: 1) will “materially and substantially disrupt” the school environment, 2) is vulgar and/or lewd, 3) misrepresents a school endorsement, or 4) promotes illegal drug usage. While the aforementioned list regarding unprotected expression for students is not exhaustive, these areas are the most common types of unprotected speech.

Contact Us If Your Speech Was Censored

If you have been the victim of censorship or prior restraint, if you have been arrested for engaging in a public demonstration or other protected political activity, either in your private life, work environment, and/or at school or if you have been punished in any way for speaking your mind, contact our attorneys for a free consultation about your situation and possible remedies.