Free speech is one of the great tenets of American culture, politics and identity.
But the First Amendment is also perhaps the most misunderstood "freedom." It is not an unlimited hall pass to say whatever you want, wherever you want, to whomever you want.
Take for example a recent incident in Southern Oregon, where a letter appeared in early November in the Medford Mail Tribune. It was written by Dace Cochran, a Jackson County sheriff's patrol sergeant. He cites various passages from the Bible, and calls same-sex marriage "an abomination," and "unseemly." As troubling as his comments was the response from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, which offered a statement last week saying, "Dace Cochran sent the letter during his own private time. He was not operating under any authority of the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. Like everyone else, he has a right to freedom of speech."
But that justification is not quite correct. Sure, free speech is a primary definer of American culture and politics, but it does differ from the tolerance of bigotry in public officials—and freedom of speech does have its limits, like, as Zechariah Chafee is credited as explaining, "Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins."
Yet, those legal and common decency principles, and limitations to "freedom" of speech, seem to be particularly absent on the internet, as if online comments are not as real or do not require as much legal and moral responsibility.
We were taken aback last week with a string of comments posted on our Facebook in response to postings regarding Michael Brown, the black teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. The comments were vicious—and pointed toward one woman in particular. If made in public, there certainly would have been legal grounds to arrest the man for harassment and, if made in print, they could have potentially been libelous. But, because they are online—on Facebook—they seem to be both tolerated and allowed.
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a legal case regarding this very topic. The case dates back four years ago to when a then-27-year-old man began making online threats against his ex-wife, threatening to choke her to death and sketching out plans for how he could shoot her through her window. The threats were reported to the FBI and after a female agent visited the man, he posted rap-style lyrics, in which he fantasizes about slitting the female FBI agent's throat.
Amazingly, whether those comments constitute threats or are protected under allowable online freedom of speech is so unclear that the case has made its way to the Supreme Court. Writing for the New York Times, Emily Bazelon clearly explains why this tolerance, both legal and culturally, seems to exist, and why freedoms of speech online seem to have much wider latitude than would be allowed face-to-face or even if printed in a newspaper: "The legal issue is connected to a larger question," she wrote, "how to deal with the frequent claim that online speech is a special form of playacting, in which a threat is as unreal as an attack on an avatar in 'World of Warcraft.'"
It is that assessment—that online comments and expressions are somehow less real—that has allowed so-called freedom of speech to go largely unchecked online. Reportedly, over the past eight years, there have been fewer than 50 federal prosecutions for such threats, a number that is so woefully low that it is almost comical.
Certainly we believe in freedom of speech—or, as my Constitutional Law professor called it, a "privilege" not a right to free speech. The First Amendment is part of the foundation of this newspaper, but we also recognize basic responsibilities with and limitations to that freedom—for starters, we cannot threaten people, and we must be truthful.
It is long overdue for the Supreme Court to extend these same restrictions it applies on "freedom" of speech in-person and in-print to Facebook and other online comments and publications.