african american man yelling

My introduction to this much-touted concept of 'free speech'--- and its potential consequences----came when I was third grade. We were allowed to run around and play in the front of the school in the morning before eventually being led into our respective classrooms. On this particular day, a girl named Loretta and boy named Claude were engaged in a debate about a topic that caused the two of them to square off. Back then, when two people didn’t agree, the default way to handle problems then was to play the dozen--- a game of skill in which Claude was gifted, while Loretta was notorious for her ability to respond in a very different, and much more physical, manner.

Remembering it now, it’s easy to see where that situation took a turn for the worse. Claude was relentless in his assault and Loretta’s brow had gotten more furrowed the more he ranted on. Whether it was the subject matter, the fact that it was Claude doing the talking, or the embarrassment of the children pointing and laughing at her, Loretta finally reached her breaking point and punched homeboy in the mouth. Not once, but twice. A series of “Oooooohs” vibrated within the crowd as Loretta was set up to land her third blow when the teachers broke up the fight. Loretta’s hair flailed wildly in all directions as she was escorted to the principal’s office. Claude had been taken to the front office to nurse a busted lip. As a seven year old, I learned a valuable lesson:

I can say whatever I want, but I better be prepared for the consequences.

The First Amendment, famously known for providing us the right to "free speech,"  is one of the cornerstones of American society. It allows citizens of the U.S. to exchange all manners of ideas, opinions, and views with almost little to no interference by the federal government. Many equate freedom of speech as a free pass to say whatever they want and expect very little, if any, backlash. The exceptions to the Amendment illustrate the need to occasionally strip the protection provided by the Amendment and allow people to be held accountable for their words. For example, when discussing “hate speech” (racist threats from one person to another) or “fighting words” (words that would actually provoke a fight), the words spoken in those situations aren’t protected by the first amendment. In other words, if you violate the exceptions provided in the first amendment, the government will remove the protection and you can be held accountable.

I wonder, when I hear people shout about their "right" to free speech in social and professional situations, just how many of them have read the text of the First Amendment as adults (if ever). It reads: "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."

Note that this says nothing about you losing your job, getting dissed on the internet or even popped in the mouth for saying something offensive or hurtful. No, Congress won't come get you for disrespecting the Rutgers girls basketball team , but Don Imus was fired a week later for his comments. Isaiah Washington didn't have the First Amendment to lean on when he called his co-worker a homophobic slur at a press conference.  And while the government wasn't going to come after Justine Sacco, who tweeted about not getting AIDS during her trip to Africa, the internet came for her and her job was a casualty.

Time and time again, we’ve been privy to what happens when people push the line of “free speech” too far. While there are some who believe that words don't hurt, America has also shown a pronounced, if inconsistent, habit of holding people accountable for their words.

Freedom of speech in America is possible because there are consequences in place to protect people from crossing the line. The First Amendment was created to encourage the free flows of ideas and communication between people, while not allowing the government to infringe on that exchange. With that said, the government has exceptions that allow people to be held legally accountable for their words. While some take longer to learn this lesson than others, Loretta and Claude set the tone early in my life for what happens when “free” speech is used too liberally. The first amendment might be a right of speech to be “free” but as Claude learned, that freedom may occasionally have to be paid for in blood.


Garfield Hylton is a writer based in the Silver Spring area of Maryland. He blogs at RealGoesRight.com