No Right To Be Uncriticized

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

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.

This is freedom of speech: you can say what you want, and the government won’t sanction you for doing it. So if you want to go on national television and pimp out your new historically revisionist movie, and there call homosexuality “unnatural,” “detrimental,” “ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization,” the government won’t stop you and won’t sanction you for it after the fact. But you don’t have a right to be free from criticism from other people who disagree with you. It’s sort of like when you say something amazingly offensive and stupid, and lots of your advertisers decide they’d rather be associated with someone other than you.* That’s also not a First Amendment issue. (You can argue, I suppose, that tu quoque is an appropriate response instead, but don’t be surprised when it doesn’t work; and by the way, keep staying classy, Michael Moore.)

Although this scenario is playing out on the right side of the spectrum now, there’s players on the left who will drop the “Private criticism of me is suppression of my free speech rights” card on occassion too.† And it’s just incorrect. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Freedom of speech means freedom to criticize. If your view is silenced, perhaps it’s because everyone else in the world can tell that you were wrong, that you didn’t know what you were talking about, or at least that you were out of line. If they subsequently ignore you, contradict you, lampoon you, or otherwise heap abuse upon you, that’s the risk you took when you entered in to the arena of public opinion.

While the objective of the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech is not necessarily discernment of the truth, it is a very fine side effect of it indeed. If we learn, through allowing people to speak their minds freely, that in fact they are fools, bigots, or worse,‡ well, we’re all actually better off for knowing it.


* Nearly three dozen of them, according to one not-exactly-unbiased source.

† E.g., When Roseanne Barr decided to mangle the national anthem and mock baseball players at a baseball game, IIRC, she played this card; this was also the point that her entertainment career jumped the shark.

‡ What personal shortcoming, reasonably exposed during public discourse, could be worse than bigotry? How about sociopathy?

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. From a Constitutional standpoint, you are of course 100% correct. I do tend to get annoyed when people portray Hank Williams or Whoopi Goldberg as having their rights trampled on.

    And yet…

    From a social good standpoint, there is a thin line between one’s own rights and respecting the views of others. Which is to say, an employer (for instance) might have the right to fire someone for expressing a viewpoint that they disagree with, but whether they are right to do so is a murkier question and highly dependent on circumstances (a spokesman is one thing, an engineer is another). Likewise, shouting someone out of the public sphere for having unpopular ideas is within our rights, but not necessarily the right thing to do.

    If that makes sense.

    • Doesn’t this go both ways, though? Just because you have the right to say vile things doesn’t mean that it is right to? I understand your larger point and agree, but I think sometimes we have a tendency to blame the second actor when their action was wholly predicated on an initial actor acting wrong. No, two wrongs don’t make a right, but lets also not forget how the whole affair got started. It might be wrong of me to call Person X an asshole, but I am only calling him that because he said some egregiously asshole things.

      • It absolutely goes both ways, which is what makes it so danged complicated. There are questions as to what constitutes “vile.” But it puts its point on a rather uncomfortable thing: Outside of the legal realm, free speech is not an unmitigated good. The trouble with saying that is that when you do, it sounds like you want the government to get involved. This is not necessarily so. But shouting certain voices out of the public sphere – and especially out of certain contexts – has its benefits. And yet, to admit this (even if we all agree that government sanctions should not occur) is to admit that Freedom of Speech does not truly exist, only the Freedom From Government Interference of Speech, which is a different thing from Freedom of Speech, in my view. The latter, in spirit if not in law, incorporates defense against unreasonable private sanction. Reasonability, of course, being subjective. Which is why we always end up debating these things, whether it’s a baseball pitcher paying a fine for saying something he shouldn’t have or a blog commenter getting banned.

  2. Thanks for this. The “first amendment” as an argument that people shouldn’t take offense is a personal pet peeve.

  3. This is freedom of speech: you can say what you want, and the government won’t sanction you for doing it.

    The government sanction or prohibition thereof is only part of “freedom of speech,” not the whole of it.

    In other words, as Will said, legally, you are 100% correct (probably….I wonder if statutory and common-law and equity recognize certain torts and bases for equitable relief that sometimes see a “right” to freedom of expression…but then, I’m not a lawyer).

    • To clarify and somewhat backtrack what I meant by my parenthetical statement, I imagine that most of what I was thinking of–libel and slander, and injunctions (a la turn of the 20th century) against boycotts and advocating strikes. In other words, these deal more with restricting some expression. So maybe they disprove my point.

      I still would like to know if some states recognize a limited right for workers not to be fired for speech. But I don’t know.

  4. You mean criticism and persecution are not interchangeable words? You’re suppressing my freedom of thought!

  5. I disagree about Roseanne. Her show lasted seven years after the incident you mention, and it was a top 5 show for four of those years.


    The main problem is this issue is that people think the First Amendment and Free Speech are synonyms. Free Speech is the philosphy of Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Most people DON’T believe in Free Speech. The sponsors who no longer advertise on Rush Limbaugh DON’T believe in Free Speech. If you have ever said that a show should be cancelled because you don’t agree with the content, then you don’t believe in free speech.

  6. The delineation between Free Speech and the First Amendment is a great way to articulate what I was trying to say.

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