Before crying “freedom of speech” you should know what it means

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, anywhere you 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 of the “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 illegal under 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 11 p.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.)

Ignorance of what “freedom of speech” means resonated with me after reading some of the responses to a story I reported this week on ABC 7. It was called “Red Flag at TSA” and focused on a Southwest suburban man, Roy Egan, who had been employed for nine years as a federal officer at O'Hare International Airport. He worked for the Transportation Security Administration.

Egan had posted hundreds of crude and graphic statements on his Facebook page aimed primarily at Muslims, but also targeting blacks, Hispanics, gays and some politicians, including the Obamas. Muslims, he wrote, should be “exterminated” and he applauded the thought of them going up in flames.

How did we find the postings and the officer? His Facebook page listed his full name and occupation.

During my interview with officer Egan, he defended the postings as his opinion and it was “freedom of speech commentary.”

Although it is unclear how the TSA could have missed such a public display by one of its veteran employees, after learning of it from ABC 7 the officer was suspended and is being fired.

That is when a barrage of emails began stating that the man's termination violated his right of free speech.

First, encouraging certain religious categories of people to be killed is probably not protected speech.

But most importantly, employers do not have to allow their employees to say anything they want. Remember, the Constitution only protects from government suppression. A boss, a corporate board member or a parent can suppress all they want.

Let me put it another way: If I wanted to begin this column with a rant about how terrible the Daily Herald is and then listed the home addresses of editors who enjoy torturing ladybugs, they wouldn't run it. But the free speech covenant wouldn't have been violated because the Daily Herald isn't the government and can set its own rules.

However, if government agents padlocked the Daily Herald to prevent my column from running because the TSA story was embarrassing, that would be a violation of the First Amendment.

When that starts happening, it will be time to invoke the Second Amendment*.

(* A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.)