Free speech — and the First Amendment — are major topics of debate in 2022. From former president Barack Obama labeling himself “pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist,” to debates over whether Florida’s legislature punished Disney for exercising free speech by revoking the company’s special improvement district, to conservative howls about censorship on social media, it seems that everyone has a take.
Yet, on one topic, our legal tradition is very clear: When speech verges into violence and destruction, the Constitution does not protect it and the government can punish people for expressing political sentiments. That is relevant to our debates today given how some on the right continue to defend the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as an acceptable political protest and to call those arrested and charged in conjunction with it “political prisoners.” In February, the Republican National Committee (RNC) even passed a resolution calling the Jan. 6 protests “legitimate political discourse” — though amid backlash, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel clarified that the phrase referred only to nonviolent demonstrators.
Lynn Greenky is an Associate Teaching Professor at Syracuse University in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies. She teaches a beloved undergraduate course about the First Amendment. She is the author of When Freedom Speaks: The Boundaries and Boundlessness of the First Amendment. You can follow her on Instagram @LynnGreenky.