As a young person growing up in the Digital Age, your voice has tremendous reach thanks to social media platforms. From Snapchat to Instagram to Twitter and more, you can assert yourself as you wish: to express, to challenge, to inform—and also, to criticize, to mock, to gloat, to hurt and to bait—really whatever you want to say because you live in America and have freedom of speech, right? Nope. That’s not what freedom of speech is. And this is a civics lesson that you need to understand before your social media—or any other public behavior—smacks you in the ass.
Freedom of speech means your government can’t arrest you for expressing your view, even if that point of view is in opposition to the government or offensive to a portion, however large, of society. Freedom of speech also means that the government will protect your right to express that point of view in a public forum. Controversial speakers and protestors of all kinds have local police protection when they are legally organizing and exercising their freedom to speak.
Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, has said, “The First Amendment protects insightful ideas, but also stupid, insensitive, hateful, and deeply offensive speech.” BUT—and here is where folks seem to be getting confused, after expressing your freedom of speech, be prepared for social penalties of all kinds. The First Amendment gives you no protection whatsoever from that.
That’s because freedom of speech isn’t free. You pay a price for it; one that you need to be willing to pay by facing whatever consequences that follow. You might not get a job or you might get fired from a job if an employer is aware of how you expressed yourself and determines it to be antithetical to the work culture. You might not get into a college or you might get kicked off a team for the ways that you express yourself.
Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on the field during the National Anthem at National Football League football games was protected by freedom of speech. It was within his constitutional rights to do so. The First Amendment protected this right but offered zero protection from the backlash and the professional repercussions that followed. The same has held true for middle school, high school and college athletes throughout the country who have chosen to emulate Colin Kaepernick. Some took a knee during the National Anthem with the approval or acceptance of the school they represented. For other youth, the very action which they were “free” to do cost them time in the game or membership on the team, a team they likely worked hard to become part of and that meant a great deal to them. Read College Football Players Penalized for Kneeling During National Anthem and How High Schools Deal with Kneel National Anthem. Fair?—maybe, maybe not. Legal?—at private institutions, it seems so. For public ones, it could be argued not. But either way, a legal battle is a costly consequence that should not be taken lightly. You can be right and still be wronged. And some wrongs are not possible to correct.
So, the protections from the First Amendment are clear. The price of freedom of speech is not. And sometimes, who pays the price can be unfair. Of late some TV personalities and comedians have said things that various groups have found offensive or inappropriate. Why do some seem to escape more or less unscathed and other suffer sharp consequences? Stephen Colbert is doing just fine but Kathy Griffin is still struggling to regain her footing. Natalie Mains of the Dixie Chicks took a hit for what she said. But Bill Mahr seems to be able to say whatever he wants (this time). It’s not freedom of speech protecting some more than others. It just depends on who you are held accountable to—your school or your employer and their constituencies. How they feel about what you do or say very much shapes the consequences of free speech. When it comes to assessing the price of your freedom of speech, look to who you represent. Ask yourself, how will they feel about what you are saying and what might they do in response? Exercise your freedom but don’t blame the First Amendment for what follows.
Now, onto civility. Somewhere along the way, we, as a society thought we had a free pass when it came to the internet. Here, many thought, you can say whatever you want, whether it is hurtful or hateful and this is ok because what happens online stays online. It sure does seem like some people behave with abandon in digital commentary, with little to no regard for how a comment reflects on them and those around them and with no concern for how comments can make others feel. Empathy can often seem like a lost value.
However, sometimes, you will be held accountable for what you post online, often with harsh consequences. In the fall of last year, Ben Clayton was a star quarterback in his junior year of high school, doing well at school and being recruited to play football at various colleges. All that changed on the day he thought it would be funny to take a photo of his teacher wearing a skirt and send it to his friends on Snapchat. The photo didn’t show his teacher’s face but it was clearly inappropriate to take and to share. A chain of negative events was set in motion by that one decision. A screenshot was taken of the image before Ben deleted it from his Snapchat account and it was forwarded to more students and brought to administration attention. Law-enforcement was brought to the school and they escorted Ben out of the building. A three-day suspension was followed by being expelled for the rest of the semester. Ben was removed from the football team. News of what he did widely circulated; college recruitment efforts lessoned and friends distanced themselves from him. Truth be told, the image itself is more or less PG. Some might argue, that the punishment did not meet the crime. Doesn’t matter. Yes, Ben was a good kid who made a bad decision—one that will haunt him for years to come. Take heed, Ben’s parents want families to be having the Ben Clayton conversation. (Read more about it, Ben Slaton football Star Snapchat Explelled) Need more proof, here are more Social Media Controversies That Landed Students In Trouble. Don’t let this happen to you.
Just remember, at some point in your life someone will be researching you as you take a step in a new direction, a new school, a new job, maybe even a run for an elected office. And the internet has a good memory. The poor choices you make online will be found. So, think before you act and post. While some people will get away with behaving badly, you may not. And there is no way to ensure it, so why take the risk? And really, why not be the better person; why not embrace the golden rule and raise the quality of discourse around you. Why not?