Legalese 101: Freedom of Speech

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on May 23, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We here at FindLaw know that legal jargon can be confusing. We hear people misusing legal words and phrases all the time. So we've decided to help you better understand all the legal phrases tossed around on Law & Order. Here is a new educational series we like to call FindLaw's Legalese 101.

It's called freedom of speech!

How many of you have heard that response when you've not-so-politely requested that someone stop talking?

A lot of you, I'm sure.

But guess what? That's actually an improper use of the term, and here's why.

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from abridging the right to free speech. Through the 14th Amendment, that prohibition has been applied to the states.

What this means is that neither you nor I, unless we happen to be agents/employees of the government, may infringe on anyone's freedom of speech. We can happily tell someone to be quiet without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

Now that that's settled, what exactly does freedom of speech encompass?

The Constitution protects your right to engage in actual speech or symbolic speech, whether it be expressive, commercial or political, with the following exceptions:

  • Defamation/Invasion of Privacy
  • Obscenity
  • Intellectual Property Infringement
  • Speech that incites others to break the law
  • "Fighting Words"
  • Speech that creates a "clear and present danger" to national security
  • False advertising
  • Speech that is disruptive to school activities

The government may also place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner in which you may assert your freedom of speech, so long as the regulations are not based on the content of your message.

Now that the lesson is done, next time someone tries to tell you that you're violating his freedom of speech, have a little chuckle, and then remember what you learned over here on Legalese 101.

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