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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Free speech has consequences

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: December 23, 2023, 6:02am

The great thing about the right to free speech is that we have the right to be wrong. Or obtuse. Or obnoxious, if we are so inclined.

The First Amendment affords Americans the right to speak their minds without interference from government. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,” the amendment reads, in part. (We would be remiss to not offer a reminder that the First Amendment also codifies freedom of the press.)

But with a fractious populace and a political party that promotes “alternative facts” and social media that provides platforms for mistruths, the notions of free speech and First Amendment rights and censorship have become particularly fraught. And they have become grossly misunderstood.

This came to mind last week when state senators in Oregon were rebuked by a federal judge after invoking their First Amendment rights as an excuse for not doing their jobs.

Republican lawmakers in that state have made a habit of going home to prevent votes on bills they don’t like. So Oregon voters took a stand; last year they passed, with 68 percent of the tally, a measure to prevent legislators who have 10 unexcused absences during a session from running for reelection.

Some lawmakers continued to walk out anyway. They then challenged the law, saying it violates their rights and that they were engaging in protest, which amounts to free speech.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken wasn’t buying it. “These walkouts were not simply protests — they were an exercise of the Senator Plaintiffs’ official power and were meant to deprive the legislature of the power to conduct business,” she wrote last week. “Their subsequent disqualification is the effect of Measure 113 working as intended by the voters of Oregon.”

Which seems reasonable. Employers, we would expect, have a right to count on employees doing their jobs. It’s hard to imagine an editor being empathetic if a reporter said, “I wasn’t just playing video games at home; I was protesting having to write that article that I didn’t like. I was exercising my First Amendment rights.”

This, of course, is not the only avenue in which people wrongly invoke the First Amendment and freedom of speech. And the issue applies to newspapers and college campuses and any other public forum.

The Columbian often hears from readers who wrote a letter to the editor and wonder why it was not published. Sometimes it’s because they wrote 700 words when our limit is 200. Sometimes it’s because they recently had a letter published and we have a 30-day moratorium. Sometimes it’s because we did not have room or we published several other letters about the same topic.

And sometimes it’s because they claimed that Joe Biden (or Donald Trump) is a scaly lizard person from a previously unknown planet and secretly feasts on human brains; we do our best to avoid printing falsehoods.

Most people are understanding of our reasoning. But some of them rant that we are violating their freedom of speech, a claim that represents a gross misunderstanding of the First Amendment.

Oregon lawmakers can argue that the government is suppressing free speech by passing a law that prohibits them from running for office. It’s a thin argument, but at least it involves government action.

But whether or not they are in office, they still have a right to go online or stand on a street corner or climb to the top of the Capitol and share their opinions with the world.

The same can be said for letter-writers. Whether or not we publish a letter, they still have a right to share their opinion with anybody who will indulge them.

Regardless of the forum, there is a common misconception about freedom of speech. Many people try to use the First Amendment as a cloak for offensiveness, claiming that being obtuse or obnoxious should not result in being “canceled.” But free speech does not mean we are free from the consequences of that speech.