Before Crying 'Freedom of Speech' You Should Know What It Means -BYLN-

Article excerpt

The Constitution is getting quite a workout on Wall Street, across the Loop and Sunday morning in Grant Park, where 175 Occupy Chicago demonstrators were arrested.

And on movie screens.

Near the beginning of the new George Clooney film, "Ides of March," his character -- a presidential candidate -- stakes claim to what he believes in. Not Catholicism, or Judaism, Islam or atheism.

He believes in the Constitution of the United States.

Such a ploy might actually play pretty well with many Americans at this point. Even in a nation founded on faith, taking religion out of the fray would appeal to some voters who don't think it has any place in political values.

For some though, you would have to explain what the U.S. Constitution actually means -- especially the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. 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 the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Perhaps more than any other part of the Constitution, the First Amendment right of "free speech" gets cited by Americans.

Wrongly so.

From an eighth-grader suspended for recording a song about why his teacher should be dead to the gay community members whose parade has been rerouted, the chorus sounds the same: "My right to free speech is being violated."

The problem with that is: The Constitution doesn't guarantee you "free speech."

Despite what many seem to believe, the "freedom of speech" guarantee in the Constitution doesn't give you the right to say anything you want, anywhereyou want.

The First Amendment makes it unconstitutional for government to suppress speech (and "expression" as it has come to include). That's it.

There are numerous exceptions to that, well beyond just the popular citation ofthe "yelling fire in a crowded theater" kind of speech that is prohibited. Under the Constitution,the courts allow for many types of dangerous speech to be regulated or banned by law.

Child pornography, defamation and inciting crimes are just a few examples of speech that has been determined to be illegalunder the U.S. Constitution.

"Free speech" didn't give Occupy Chicago protesters the right last weekend to violate a municipal ordinance that closes Grant Park at 11p.m. (Neither does the Constitution give Occupy Wall Street demonstrators the right to sleep on public streets and camp in a private park, although for some reason the NYPD has chosen not to enforce trespass laws. …