Freedom of Expression The Value, Your Identity & Its Protection

Updated: Oct 17

The value, your identity, and why it should remain protected

For this blog, it should be noted that freedom of speech and expression will be used interchangeably.

Freedom of expression is a beautiful thing. It allows people like you and me to walk into, say, a City Council meeting, verbalize our thoughts and walk away. Whether they wanted to hear what I had to say or not or disagreed with me, the council still had to allow me to talk during an open forum discussion. Even as I type out this blog post, ready to share my thoughts on the internet, I am utilizing my freedom of expression granted by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The societal value of freedom of expression is much more nuanced than the First Amendment (or the words themselves) suggest. 'Freedom' gives the user the illusion that they can say or write whatever they want without consequence and will be protected. What many people fail to realize is you're not really protected at all.

At least not in the capacity that most individuals think. Your speech is protected from governing authorities, whether federal, state, or local; they cannot imprison you, shut down your business as a result of, or behead you (take that Henry VIII) under the First Amendment. Your speech is not protected on the privately owned property or platforms - sorry Donald Trump. This means your speech can get you banned from Facebook as much as it can get you banned from the grocery store.

You will likely not be removed from the grocery store for simply expressing your opinion on the floral arrangements at the check-out stand. However, in today's polarized climate, I suppose it's possible, but your racist rhetoric, a loud condemnation against anyone in the LGBTQ+ community, or vilification against all Catholics might.

Teresa M. Bejan, in Two Concepts of Freedom (of Speech), channels John Stuart Mill, who warned us in On Liberty (1859):

"...the greatest threat to 'freedom of thought and discussion' in democracies was not the state, but the 'social tyranny' of one's fellow citizens."

What does this mean exactly? Well, where the government cannot police you, society will. That is because society and government conceptualize freedom of expression differently.

Liberals look at freedom of expression through the isegoria lens, which is fundamentally about equality. Whereas Conservatives look at freedom of expression through the parrhesia lens and fall within the realm of liberty*. When the First Amendment was written, the greats mashed the two concepts together, creating the equal right for citizens to express themselves freely. Society, however, has shifted away from saying whatever you want, whenever you want, and you'll be protected under the First Amendment and has declared certain speech unfavorable and cause for public backlash. In the wise words of Immanuel Kant, as retold by Teresa Bejan,

"...the freedom of (reasoned) speech in public should be 'the most harmless' of all."

The U.S. Constitution currently does not have rules against things like hate speech, although many individual states do. The European Union, for example, has laws against hate speech in public and online. This is where the federal government lacks, despite state and societal pressures to catch up. Governing authorities should not write off the First Amendment as an individual's identity relies upon freedom of expression. Our ability to have ideas and opinions and be able to share them makes us who we are; without an individual identity, we become a cog in the wheel.

The First Amendment will always be valuable and is worth protecting. However, freedom of expression should not incite violence, fear, persecution, or the mistreatment of others. Freedom of expression is for thought-provoking conversation, to be able to discuss topics with opposing viewpoints freely and without fear, for the betterment of society. Freedom of expression should not marginalize others in order for you to express yourself freely. If it does, it is hate speech, which has no place in society and should not be protected by governing authorities.


*This generalization between liberals and conservatives, isegoria and parrhesia, is made in Bejan's "Two Concepts of Freedom (of Speech)" and is not a generalization I am in support of or defending.