It’s a popular pastime nowadays to rant about how the U.S. is infringing upon freedom of speech. Conservatives specifically will talk about how oppressed their freedom of speech is because they feel like they cannot express their views without people criticizing them. What a lot of people fail to realize is that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to speak without repercussion: It means that the government cannot censor or restrain you. It does not mean people can’t criticize you, that your workplace cannot find your speech or actions inappropriate or that what you say won’t be subject to negative social repercussions. You have the freedom to say what you want, without the government regulating you; other people, press, companies, celebrities and social media, however, have the freedom to react.
Let’s take a trip now, to a country where that isn’t the case. In March 2015, Singapore teenage blogger, Amos Yee, uploaded a video criticizing Singapore’s long-time Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew. He was arrested and, at age 16, tried as an adult on counts of “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings” and “threatening, abusive or insulting communication.”
Now it should be pointed out that, regarding the first charge, Yee made no explicit threats against the religious groups (in this case Christians and Muslims in question). He made critical, offensive statements, but it was to the caliber of comments you’d find in a nasty Reddit thread or the YouTube comments section.
What we’re trying to illustrate is the difference between the way Singapore handled this situation and the way America would have — and illustrate that our freedom of speech is much greater than some conservatives would have you believe.
Yee criticized a revered leader. He was arrested at 16 and tried as an adult. In America, people criticize the president all the time — and not just in YouTube videos. They do it on radio shows, on television, even in large public spaces. They make a living yelling at a camera about political leaders. They do it across the political spectrum. People criticize President Donald Trump and people criticized former President Barack Obama and before that, people criticized former President George Bush, former President Bill Clinton and everyone else before. People post angry blog entries and videos and write long raging social media posts.
And they don’t get arrested.
Now, that’s not to say you can scream or post anything without government repercussion. The government steps in for the (understandable) instances of child pornography, fraud, certain cases of obscenity and speech that pose a clear and present danger.
The point is, here in America, we have a considerable freedom of speech that we don’t even realize. It just takes one glance at your estranged uncle’s Facebook rants or the blog post by that girl from your Preview group to realize that the government isn’t about to swoop in to restrict their freedom of speech.
Where the confusion comes up is that people mistake the freedom of speech for freedom of being a jerk. Here’s where we can clarify things. The government is not going to arrest a man for making lewd comments about his female coworkers; but his company can fire him. The government is not going to swoop in because a student made a racist group on Facebook; but the university can remove him or her from leadership positions. Freedom of speech does not mean you are immune from the reactions of those around you, because, believe it or not, they have the same freedom of speech as you.