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 -The First Amendment to the United States Constitution
When I was in grade school, and then again in high school, it was a requirement for us children to learn the United States Bill of Rights. It’s fitting, after all– we live in this country, and therefore, should know at least the basic tenants of how it came to be.
As a child, I was primarily focused on the First Amendment; namely, the guarantee to the right of Free Speech. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason, that one stuck out to me far more than any of the others. Possibly, I’ve come to realize now, it was because I really didn’t understand what “freedom of speech” actually meant. In my adolescent, immature mind, the First Amendment gave me the unalienable right to say whatever the fuck I wanted. And, trust me, I tried this out– several times in fact; each time, with the same result (being grounded, after-school detentions, etc.).
It was then, somewhere in my tween years, I learned what the First Amendment actually protected us citizens against. It wasn’t the right for me to call teachers “assholes” when I didn’t find their arguments against my unfettered opinions uninspiring. It wasn’t, as I found out many times, a right to tell police officers to “fuck off” or my parents that I could curse “whenever the hell I damn want to, Mom!”. No– none of those things were genuinely true.
Read this next paragraph– you’ll be tested on it later.
The First Amendment, as I came to learn, prevents US citizens from government persecution. It allows us to worship whomever we’d like, assemble peacefully, not punish newspapers and blogs like this for speaking out against our government, and, pay attention now, the right to freedom of speech without government interference.
Why bring this up now, you ask? And on a website focused mainly on digital marketing?
Because, within the last few months, a few very public cases have been taking up major headlines on the Interwebs. And, along with major news stories, comes a deluge of opinionated posts on social networks.
Many of these heartfelt status updates, as it turns out, clearly do not understand the First Amendment.
Last month, public outcry over then-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s financial support of anti same-sex marriage legislation eventually led to his resignation from the company. Just recently, as I’m sure all of you have heard by now, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA, and likely will be forced to sell his portion of the team, for racist remarks (made in private, mind you), that were recorded and leaked by his then-mistress.
What do these stories have in common? They both involve the personal beliefs, and the private speech, of two men who were later put in the hot seat, and forced to resign their employment status– and both stories sparked their fair-share of people who just don’t understand our First Amendment.
More with the Sterling story than anything, I’ve seen numerous posts on Facebook & Twitter, mostly by people I do now or once considered friends, asking why he should be fined and banned for something that is covered by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Because, people, it’s not. Not at all. Not even close.
The First Amendment right to freedom of speech only protects American citizens from government persecution– not from action taken by an employer, parent, or teacher.
Think about it: if I were to go on Twitter and say that I hated the company I worked for (and called them out by name) repeatedly, I would deserve to be fired. There’s no question– this kind of activity can harm a company’s reputation and actually cost them money, should I say anything that potential or current clients of theirs were to take seriously. Being an employee of an organization means that I represent said company in the public eye, whether I’m the CEO or an entry-level newbie. A business’s reputation can mean everything, and anything that an individual within the organization does to harm that doesn’t belong there.
This is the case with both Sterling and Eich– although they are certainly entitled to their own opinions (and, no one is debating that), they also represent large corporations; therefore, their words and actions are not seen in the public, as right or wrong as that may be, as “theirs and theirs alone”.
While you are certainly entitled to your own opinion on these cases, and absolutely free to express those where & when you see fit, please leave the First Amendment out of it. Drudging up the issue of freedom of speech, in instances where the government is not involved, just makes you look uneducated. And it’s completely within my First Amendment right to tell you so.