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Freedom of speech - Why do so many people misunderstand it?

One of the most misunderstood concepts I've ever seen is the freedom of speech granted by the U.S. Constitution.

This has been one of my pet peeves (I hate that phrase, but it fits) for a while now, and some people who have seen my comments on this site already know how I feel about it. But every so often, after letting bad references to it slide by because I just can't be bothered, I'll hit my critical mass and decide I need to comment. Since the latest incident is in the middle of the news story about U.S. soldiers sounding off about playing the Taliban in the new Medal of Honor game, and since there's no way to leave any kind of meaningful comment in one of those threads, I've decided to just do a blog post.

Here is the first amendment to the Constitution:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

That's it. Not a lot of verbiage (certainly not 1500 pages worth!). Just a simple statement about what government is not allowed to do.

Yet so many people don't seem to get it.

You hear it on this site, along with almost any site on the Internet where people congregate and spout off. It usually happens when the corporate entity behind the site (or the moderators who are paid, or who volunteer, to enforce the company's standards) decides to crack down on what somebody said on the forum.

"You can't ban me! That's censorship! I have freedom of speech! This is against the first amendment!!"

Uh, no, you don't have free speech here. All the Constitution guarantees is that Congress can't pass any laws barring you from saying something (and that's always been limited by other considerations anyway). You have the right to speak. You don't have the right to a forum in which to present that speech. You are welcome to provide your own, but if you're using somebody else's forum, they have every right to shut you down if they don't like what you're saying. Nobody is obligated to help you distribute your speech. Nobody is obligated to make sure that people hear your speech.

Along the same lines, and referring back to the statement in the news article today (one of the commenters, not somebody in the story itself), that said "Then those people shouldn't play it. This is America and we have freedom of speech," I have to say that this again is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.

The government can't tell EA that they can't produce this game, or that they can't have the Taliban as a playable side in the multiplayer. However, that doesn't mean that people can't protest, boycott, and use economic methods to force EA not to do it. (Not that I'm advocating this, or think it will ever happen, but I'm using it to illustrate my point). If enough people get pissed off about this and EA decides that, after looking at the controversy, they're going to pull the game or the multiplayer option, then that is democracy in action.

In other words, THIS IS NOT A FREE SPEECH ISSUE. It's only a free speech issue if the government is involved.

It still amazes me how many people don't get this. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

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