When Does “Free Speech” Cross the Line into Harassment?


In the last few years, our country has been reckoning with what the right to “free speech” actually means. Some people are discovering that when it comes down to it, free speechalways has its limitations.

Don’t Yell “Fire” in a Crowded Theater

To sum up the restrictions on what falls outside of the protections of free speech, generally:

Free speech has to be the truth. You can’t go around telling lies about people or businesses. If your lies end up damaging the person or business’ reputation, and they decide to take you to Court, you have a good chance of being held financially responsible.

Libel and slander are never protected under the right to free speech.

Free speech cannot violate another person’s rights. Threatening violence has never been protected by the right to free speech. You can say, “I hate your guts,” but you can’t say, “I’m going to punch you in the nose.”

Theoretically, the second statement could be actionable in a Court of law.

The recent Fox News vs. Dominion case is a perfect example of a slander case. After the January 6th incident at The Capital, Fox News decided to support Donald Trump’s disproven statements that the voting machines, built by a company called Dominion, were corrupt and stole the election from him.

As a result of these statements, Dominion suffered business losses. They were dropped by multiple clients who grew wary of their products. So, Dominion took Fox News to Court, and were prepared to provide evidence that their machines had not in fact miscounted votes, and received a $787 million settlement.

In this scenario, Fox News may have thought it was protected by free speech, but remember: free speech only protects statements that are thought to be accurate. Dominion was able to obtain evidence that demonstrated that Fox News knew its claims were not true, and, therefore, obtained an extremely large settlement.

Free Speech Protects You Until Someone Else’s Rights are Violated

There will always be people who are convinced that the Earth is flat. No matter how many photos you show them, or how much data you present, their honest opinion is that the Earth is flat. There’s nothing actionable about that in Court.

But, as soon as that Flat-Earther decides that he or she wants to enforce their opinion on others, and starts threatening to take violent action (“I’m gonna break into your house, tie you up, and force you to listen to my Flat-Earth reasoning until you agree with me!”), they’re breaking the law.

Threatening someone else’s safety and peace is not protected under free speech, and can get you in a lot of trouble.

Words can be as deadly as anything else. Frequently, words are a major part of domestic violence allegations. Once a threat of physical assault has been made, the victim can file for a civil protection order or may be able to have the other party arrested for a criminal offense. If a spouse claims, “My husband/wife threatened to hit me,” he or she very likely will qualify for a protection order and/or the filing of charges.

Free Speech: What it Can and Cannot Protect

Beware of saying things you know aren’t true that may harm others, especially in public. Free speech always has to be somewhat reasonable, and it must be true, and you generally cannot say things for malicious purposes.

If you are dealing with a harassment issue, call our office today at 303-449-1873 to schedule a complimentary consultation and find out if Barre Sakol is the right representative for your case.

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