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Eric Douglas: Right to speak freely comes with responsiblity

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By Eric Douglas

“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.”

One of the great things about living in the United States is you have the right to say just about anything, as long as it isn’t inciting a riot or yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. However distasteful, most people will protect and defend your right to say unpopular things -- from interference by the government or law enforcement.

That doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want with impunity, though.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States starts with “Congress shall make no law…”. In other words, it’s unconstitutional for congress to pass a law that stops you from saying something. But, that doesn’t mean your employer can’t fire you for it because your speech violates a company policy or it embarrasses the company. You can also be removed from a private establishment or kicked off an online service. The First Amendment doesn’t cover those things at all. Recently, in a 10-page memo, a male engineer at Google said he thought “biological causes” were the reason women hadn’t achieved as much in technology fields. He lost his job. He has filed a grievance, and we’ll see how it all plays out, but Google’s reaction isn’t a violation of his First Amendment rights. Google isn’t the government. And he is far from the first person who shot their mouth off in print or online and lost their job.

Nearly every day, our local television stations pose a “question of the day” on social media that is supposed to encourage “conversation.” The question is inevitably worded in such a way that it incites an argument rather than a discussion. Scrolling down through the comments, you realize how quickly things get out of hand. People say awful things to each other behind the veil of social media anonymity.

Recently, a friend commented that something was “embarrassing” and immediately another person replied that it was embarrassing that her parents hadn’t used a condom. I am not making that up. There was no other interaction between the two people, just that. They were both adults, too.

The words we say matter. Government can’t restrict the language we use. I don’t think the last example rises to the level of “hate speech,” either, but it is asinine. It is also public record that never goes away.

Many companies now have social media policies that say they can search your online records and you can be fired if they see something they don’t like. They also search Facebook as part of the job interview process. You never know when something like that is going to come back to haunt you.

Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit www.booksbyeric.com or contact him at Eric@booksbyeric.com


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