Does Freedom of Speech Mean That I Can Say Whatever I Want?

Sometimes the police do things that make you upset. Whether it is issuing you a traffic ticket or failing to investigate a crime that you believe was committed. The 1st Amendment guarantees you the right to “freedom of speech,” so can you exercise this right and say how you truly feel about that cop? What about in the civil context, when someone offends you? Can you speak your mind and then be protected by the 1stamendment from being sued or being arrested? The answer in both contexts is it depends.

Imagine someone walking up to you as you are filling your tank with gas and says, “give me your wallet or else I will go back to my car, get a gun, and blow your head off.” Lucky for you, you see a police officer walking by and you flag him down. You repeat to the officer what the robber said but the officer responds by saying he can’t arrest the man because his words are protected under the 1st Amendment. Do we as a society want to say that that robber who placed you in fear of death should not be prosecuted because he has the right to free speech? What if someone tries to blackmail you or an employer threatens to fire you unless you agree to his advances? Should the law protect that speech or are there limits to what “freedom of speech” means?

The 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution has been interpreted to mean that you are free to say whatever you want and you are even free to not say anything at all. However, if you choose to exercise that right, you need to be prepared for the consequences because the law may not protect you from your choice to speak.

In the criminal context, the government can restrict the content of your speech, as well as the time, place, and manner in which you speak, as long as the law is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. In the civil context, you can be sued for your choice of words. For instance, there is a compelling state interest in not having someone trampled as they are trying to escape a crowded theater after you yell “Fire!” As a society, we want to prevent that harm from being done so your words are not going to be protected. What does it mean that your words are not protected? It means that you can be sued and even prosecuted for a crime because of what you said. Not only can you be sued by that person who was trampled, but the government might even try to arrest you for inciting a riot.

What about extortion, blackmail, and threats? Can you threaten to sue someone for breach of contract when they don’t live up to their word? Yes. Can you threaten to hurt them for breaching the same contract? No. Can you walk up to a grieving family at a funeral and say that their family member is now burning in hell? No. Those are fighting words and you are probably going to get what is coming to you. It can be hateful and hurtful speech, but sometimes we have to accept speech that we do not like so that later the speech we want to say is also not prohibited.

Every situation is different, but it is important to know that your speech can and will be used against you. You may not always know if it is protected or not, so you have to be careful. You do not have an absolute right to say what you want, but in many situations, you can face pretty severe consequences for exercising that right.

For instance, as a criminal defense attorney, many cases are brought against people for theoristic threat. That person has exercised the right to free speech and has decided to threaten another person. The law is clear. If the person making the threat did so with the intention of placing the other person in imminent fear of his life or bodily injury. That person can and will be prosecuted for speaking.

It is evident that it is a complicated web of when speech is protected and when it is not. It is even more complicated to understand the law and what can be considered a crime and what is a civil issue. That is why it is imperative to contact a criminal lawyer in Arlington, Texas with any questions about what you have said or what someone has said to or about you.

Contact Brandy Austin Law Firm, PLLC for their insight into criminal law and freedom of speech.