Separating free speech from censorship
The American interpretation of free speech is constantly brought into question, especially when it becomes potentially damaging to a fellow citizen, company or religion. Such a case has been called to the light of the public in recent days when a public school's suppression of what they considered to be bully-fueled hate speech turned into a question of whether they were purposefully censoring the legitimate opinion of a student or not.
Anti-bullying has been a hot topic across the country in recent years, and has inspired national touring campaigns and viral video series like "It Gets Better." Whether the hate speech stems from gender, race, sexual preference or otherwise, many activists have been making a strong stand versus bullying on the schoolyard and the Internet – but how far is too far?
Can anti-bullying campaigns infringe on free speech?
To illustrate the concept that anti-bullying activists should be careful when toeing the line between reprimand and censorship, many have directed attention to a case in New Jersey involving a fourth grade class with rampant head lice. Referred to as "L.L." in a piece written for the Human Events conservative blog, the child was reported as correcting his teacher when it was implied that he had head lice – he directed her to the student who was actually afflicted.
"The teacher then explained to the class why it was important to be nice, which embarrassed L.L," the source detailed. "His classmates knew his comment had spurred the additional instruction. L.L. was stigmatized as a bully."
Following the incident, the boy's parents took legal action, feeling that their son had been unnecessarily humiliated in front of the class by his own teacher.
Though a very specific situation, this incident can be used as a case study for the way Americans regard freedom of speech in general and why these cases tend to get so complicated. It's true that the child was humiliated for exercising his right of free speech, but was the teacher who responded not doing the same thing in responding? The everyday citizen can often confuse this basic right with exemption from consequence – when a citizen says something that isn't violent or threatening, the law guarantees that they will not be arrested. However, this does not mean that any of the ramifications of those words will be completely disregarded.
Free speech will protect you from arrest, not unemployment
While one can't be arrested for expressing their opinions, it's completely possible to lose one's job security. CNN bloggers Ryan Broderick and Emmanuella Grinberg detailed some of the most incriminating cases of losing a job over social media, including the case of a teacher whose Twitter account was discovered by the administration.
"McKinney, a tenth-grade math teacher, had a very controversial Twitter account that the school she worked for discovered," the source detailed. "Her employers were not happy and placed her on administrative leave. Her students thought her racy photos and tweets about marijuana and club music were pretty cool, though, and protested online to get her back. She was fired in the end."
Even though McKinney was well within her rights to post about whatever she chose, her employer had the right to use these same posts as the reason to let her go. Cases like these have happened over and over, some in the political sector.
Citizens can view situations like the fourth grader and head lice situation from a number of perspectives, and this is an expression of our freedom of speech, as well. The ability to say what one wants to in the U.S. isn't always pretty – for an example, check the comments on any YouTube video – but it is an integral part of our culture that retains the ability to affect change.