In the United States of America, you can say pretty much whatever you like. You can march in a Gay Pride Parade or march with the KKK. So long as you are not causing direct harm to another person as a result of your speech, you can say damn-near anything without fear of being arrested or sanctioned by the state.
And while that may be true, the right to free speech doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be seen as an asshole for the language you use. Just because you can say just about whatever you like doesn’t mean that you are free from castigation or criticism for your language.
Therein lies a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech that’s quite common today. More and more, when people are criticized publicly for, say, intolerant language, they complain about the “thought police” who are trying to “censor our speech.”
For instance, I recently shared this photo on Facebook:
A clever way of calling out Chick-fil-a for their anti-Gay agenda, it appeared as part of a recent public backlash against the fast food giant for their public support of Prop 8 and for their CEO’s anti-gay stance. In the comments on my Facebook, one young man lamented the “level of censorship” we are seeing in this country, referring to calls for a boycott against Chick-fil-a.
I’m sorry, but that’s not censorship. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s one group using their free speech to express discontent with another group’s use of free speech. There is no one stopping you from eating at Chick-fil-a if you support their agenda and love their “chikin.” But there’s also nothing stopping me from ridiculing you for your support of a bigoted organization.
Similarly, more and more, I hear people (usually people on the political right) complaining about the censorship of political correctness. Again, there are accusations of “thought police” who want to “restrict my free speech” to make sure that no one’s offended ever!
Wrong again. You are welcome to say whatever you want, but you should know that if you use language like, “That’s so gay!” or “That’s retarded!” or “My phone is totally ghetto!” or “That girl’s a total bitch!” I am going to call you out. I am going to ask you to be clear with your language and to use language that is not hurtful and offensive to other people.
I mean, the English language is a vast and amazing amalgamation of words, phrases, and expressions, and you can’t come up with language creative enough to describe your distaste for something that doesn’t directly target a traditionally-marginalized group?
Well, then I will probably say something to you, and if you refuse to change your language, I’m probably going to express my discontent in other ways. Maybe I won’t spend time with you any more. Maybe I will talk to other people about how intolerant your language can be. And if you’re a public figure, yes, I might publicly shame you, as you should be held accountable for your language.
That’s the other side of the coin of your freedom of speech.
In the words of a member of the Philadelphia City Council in his letter to the CEO of Chick-fil-a, “As an American, you are legally entitled to your opinion, regardless of how insensitive and intolerant it may be, but as a fellow American . . . I am entitled to express my opinion as well.” And you may not like that my opinion calls for you to be publicly held to account for your opinion.
That’s not censorship. That’s freedom of speech.