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Not-So-Free Speech: 5 Limits on 1st Amendment Rights

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from "abridging the freedom of speech." But what does this freedom of speech encompass?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), freedom of speech doesn't necessarily mean you can say whatever you want whenever you want to.

When might your freedom of speech be limited? Here are five examples:

  1. In a private home. The First Amendment prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of speech, but unless an individual is acting on behalf of the government or as a government agent, she is generally free to prohibit any kind of speech she wants in her own home, or any other private setting, as long as she does so without breaking another law, such as physically assaulting someone.
  2. In a private workplace. If you work for a private employer, you generally have no right to free speech in the workplace, and can be disciplined for what you say. However, your employer may run afoul of other laws, such as discrimination laws if you're fired for religious expression, or labor laws if you're fired for reporting labor violations or whistleblowing.
  3. Social media. Although social media sites like Facebook might seem like an ideal public forum for posting unpopular or controversial content, as private companies, they are technically free to delete or otherwise censor any content they deem offensive.
  4. School activities. Although students at public schools still have the right to First Amendment free speech, their rights may not be as extensive as the rights of adults. For example, in a 1988 Supreme Court case, the court ruled that students' free speech rights weren't violated when school administrators removed articles from a student newspaper that dealt with controversial topics.
  5. Obscene speech. The First Amendment does not protect speech or expression that is considered "obscene." This is why child porn is against the law. However, the exact line between obscenity and free speech is often hard to determine. For example, the filmmaker behind the controversial "2 Girls, 1 Cup" viral video was sentenced to four years in prison for making films that were considered obscene, despite his contention that they were "art" protected by the First Amendment.

If you believe your constitutional right to freedom of speech has been violated, an experienced constitutional law attorney can explain your legal options.

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