How Much “Freedom” is in our Freedom of Speech?

Illustration By Diana Parra Garcia

Illustration By Diana Parra Garcia

Twenty-year-old Michelle Carter was infamously convicted in Massachusetts of involuntary manslaughter for sending a series of text messages that encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide. Carter was convicted in June of 2017 in the case Commonwealth vs. Carter. While the morality of her actions can be discussed, the question is, what legal actions can be taken for what you speak or write?

The case of Michelle Carter, while not the first case of its kind, brought into question the limit the court system is putting on our Freedom of Speech. Matthew Segel, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, wrote in a statement about the case, “Mr. Roy’s death is a terrible tragedy, but it is not a reason to stretch the boundaries of our criminal laws or abandon the protections of our constitution.”

The First Amendment protects several of our rights including freedom of speech. Due to the fact that the First Amendment was written in 1789, it has had several revisions, the last being in 1992. While freedom of speech is protected by the Constitution, it has exceptions and is left up to interpretation to an extent by the Supreme Court. Supreme Court cases set precedent on how future cases will be handled.

But as cyberbullying becomes a growing issue, the question of how much freedom of speech people have or should have when it comes to bullying and hate speech has become more relevant.

Another form of speech often brought into question is hate speech. This may hit close to home for some Santa Monica students with the recent racially-motivated incident that took place at our Performing Arts Campus. Many students questioned whether there should be consequences for the man who, during an argument, repeatedly called an African-American woman the N-word. 

But according to the Supreme Court’s responses to cases tried in 2017, hate speech, while possibly morally questionable, is nevertheless protected by the First Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito, who was on a case regarding hate speech (Matal V. Tam), said: “[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express 'the thought that we hate.'"

The Supreme Court continues to make decisions and set new precedents as they decide on cases regarding the rights protected by our First Amendment, with several cases already before the Supreme Court this year.

Many of us grew up hearing “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." That, however, may not be true and the limits to our freedom of speech are in place because saying certain things have consequences. We are free to speak our minds in the US, but some words become so powerful that some of that “freedom” to say anything to anyone is limited. I encourage you to think about the power of words, or a word, and think about how much you think people should be allowed to say before they are held responsible.