Free speech rights

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 

The U.S. Constitution protects your right to free speech. Neither Congress, nor your state government, nor your local city council, nor a school principal may prohibit you from speaking against abortion or gathering with others to do so. 

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The First Amendment to the Constitution was written to protect unpopular speech and ideas. Popular speech and trendy ideas have no need of protection. 

 

Although we have the right to express ideas that some find offensive, this doesn’t mean that we may express our ideas anywhere or in any manner. We still have to obey the laws: 

  • no trespassing on private property 

  • no blocking public access or passage 

  • no violating sound ordinances that prohibit amplified noise above a certain decibel level 

  • no obscenity

  • no threats

 

There are other exceptions to your right to free speech: the police may declare a riot and disperse a crowd for the sake of public safety, a city council may require a permit to march in the streets, a university may restrict free speech to common areas of campus where it will not interrupt classes, etc. 

 

And speech is only protected in areas open to the public: a public university but not an elementary school; the sidewalk in front of an abortion facility but not in the abortion facility’s parking lot; a public park but not someone’s yard; etc.

 

And speech is only protected when it does not exclude others from using or enjoying the same public space: giving a speech in the public library prevents others from using the library to read or study; setting up signs across the sidewalk or clogging it with protesters prevents others from using the sidewalk to safely walk down the street; etc.

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This list of exceptions to free speech and acceptable restrictions must always be applied neutrally and not change according to the content of the speech. For instance, if your local community college routinely allows Greenpeace to have a table and signs in the main campus quad, the college cannot relegate your pro-life group to an untraveled area behind the stadium because the content of your signs and table is offensive or disturbing to students. If you believe that you are being discriminated against due to the content of your pro-life speech, contact a legal organization such as Life Legal Defense Foundation

 

A basic guideline is this: the public sidewalk is always public. If someone walking their dog can walk down that sidewalk, you can stand or walk there, too, as long as you’re not blocking it. You can hold a sign, you can pray, you can speak, you can offer literature to passersby.

 

Some municipalities have special restrictions designed to hamper the speech of pro-life sidewalk counselors outside abortion facilities. If you are told by police or other pro-life people about such a city ordinance, ask for the municipal code so you can read the ordinance for yourself. If they cannot provide a code number and you cannot find it online, call a pro-life legal organization like Life Legal Defense Foundation for help. Sometimes false rumors about city ordinances or lawsuits keep pro-life sidewalk counselors from fully exercising their rights and being as effective as they could be.