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Freedom of Speech Essay

freedom of speech essay

Example #1

The Constitution of the United States states in its First Amendment that “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” (Funk & Wagnalls 162).

This Amendment guarantees each person of free speech.  Does this mean that a person can stand in the middle of the street and yell anything he wants?  No, society, even though it cherishes freedom of speech, does give this freedom certain restrictions.

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Why does society find it necessary to restrict freedom of speech? Does this ensure a more controlled society?  Let us imagine a society that has no restrictions on speech. For example, anyone can publish a false story of another person, just for revenge perhaps, and the offended person would not be able to defend himself because there is no restriction of speech.

A neighbor in a residential area decides to use a loud microphone to announce his beliefs in the middle of the night and wakes everybody up.  Because that person has every right to speak, nobody can do anything.  Even though this is “freedom of speech” it is not allowed in a civilized society.

Free speech is a very controversial issue because who is really the one to decide what can or cannot be expressed. The freedoms stated in the First Amendment have been controlled for the protection of the people. As in the examples mentioned above, a person does not have the right to disturb the peace of others just because he has the “right” to express himself.

The case Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire stated that there are some classes of speech that are limited. They are the lewd, the obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting words. When spoken they encourage fighting and so is a disturbance of peace (Stone, Seidman). Therefore, the courts have created laws that will protect a person against libel and slander.

Freedom of speech is limited in almost every area of a person’s life. For instance, a tennis player will be fined heavily during a tennis tournament if he expresses himself with foul language on the tennis court.  This obviously curtails the right of the tennis player to express himself freely, but it protects the decency of the spectators because certain forms of language are not proper for some situations. If a person goes to the movies and begins to carry on a conversation it is most probable that security will ask him to leave the theater.

By restricting his freedom of speech, the movie theater has protected the right of the person who went to enjoy a movie. The American courts have stated that the freedom of speech would not protect a man from falsely yelling “fire” in a theater and so creating a clear and present danger (Stone, Seidman). Therefore, freedom of speech cannot be abused.

There are times when the government must guarantee the safety of the people, especially in times of war.  For example, “Congress has abridged the freedom of speech in 1798 when the Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts made it a criminal offense to entice people to overthrow an established government” (Microsoft “Speech, Freedom of”). Once again, one can see how freedom of speech is not completely absolute. The government can also interfere in the freedom of speech by enforcing censorship.

Censorship is evident in movies, music, and books.  Some states have eliminated certain books from their libraries. The famous book, Tom Sawyer, written by Mark Twain was eliminated because it contained the word “nigger”, and, therefore, offended the black community. Many believe that this is taking the issue too far because the intention of Mark Twain was not to offend any reader. This is when the situation of freedom of speech becomes controversial.

Any government must take special care when curtailing freedom of speech. The communist regimes are only a good reminder of how society is affected by freedom of speech. In the case of Cuba, for example, no one can make a negative remark against the government. In other words, the government of Cuba has total control over the people. This is not a true society because man will always cherish his freedom of speech.

Although freedom of speech is very valuable for a democratic society, it is important to give society certain limits.  A person cannot expect to use foul language in public without a reaction. People must not use freedom of speech to attack a person without evidence. Freedom of speech must not be used to cause a fight or rebellion. The government has taken steps to avoid the abuse of freedom of speech.


Example #2 – Freedom Of Speech & Censorship On The Internet


With more and more frequency the newspapers are reporting instances of school children distributing disks of pornographic images which they have downloaded from the net and recently a university student was found to be operating such a site for material. On November 11, an Associated Press release (Phillips,1994) reported that Carnegie Mellon University had decided to block its users from accessing sexually explicit materials through the Internet: the university’s president feared that the university could be prosecuted under state pornography laws if it did not control the access.

Within the last week Towson State has prevented access to all of the alt.* groups on the Usenet which include* which has sexually explicit pictures. Towson State has also included a warning on their home page that there may be pornographic material on the Internet. Pornographic material is not the only material to be found on the net which can raise questions of censorship and control: discussion of racial, political, religious, and sexual topics all run the risk of offending someone, somewhere, leading to demands for control of the Internet.

The question of censorship may also be raised in some unexpected places: one newsgroup is the rec.humor list, which is a collection of jokes submitted to subscribers. There are straightforwardly rude jokes but others are politically incorrect, focusing on sexual stereotypes, mothers-in-law, women, and so on. It has been suggested (Interpersonal Computing and Technology, 1994) that discretionary warning labels could be attached to potentially offensive material. With warning labels like those on records, this may serve to whet appetites. Warning labels involve some sort of judging and then the question is raised as to who shall be the judge.

The Internet is world-wide so would the First Amendment apply in Germany? The material on the Internet which is grossly offensive by any standards, such as pedophile material, is extremely difficult to find because of its small amounts. Of the 976 obscenity cases handled between 1991 and 1993 only 11 involved computer files, while 0.3% of the obscene material seized by Customs staff in 1992-93 were computer items (Cornwall, 1994). This paper considers the question of censorship on the Internet – does it exist, in what form, should it exist, and what should be censored?

The Internet

To understand many of the questions raised an understanding of how the Internet originated is important. The internet grew out of developments in packet switching and distributed computer networks designed to be secure in time of war: distributed computer networks are less susceptible to damage because transmissions can be routed around the damage. Standard protocols ensure that any platform can be connected to this network and this meant that local area networks(LANs) could be linked while retaining all the advantages of LANs, specifically the need not to rely on a single timesharing computer.

These developments have continued through the 1970s and 1980s and now we are on the Internet as we know it. The Internet is an informal network of networks spanning the globe, with almost 4 million hosts, each of which may be serving anywhere between one and 2 million users. Theorists believe that by the year 2003 everyone in the world could be connected to the Internet (Treese, 1994).

Alongside this growth that is aided by the availability of low-cost computers, free software, and inexpensive telecommunications, it is the most important fact that the Internet is not controlled by any single authority. The Internet Society (ISOC) is a voluntary organization responsible for technical standards while the Internet Engineering Task Force (ITF) handles operational and technical problems, but no single body can be said to control the internet and what is distributed over it.

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Quality and content

The previous fact leads to two related issues. First, there is no overall set of standards to apply to the quality of material available over the Internet, quality meaning factors like accuracy, currency, editing and updating policies. Right now quality control is only exercised by the people who make the documents and because of that, the standards are sometimes low. There is also a problem of currency and revision as well as the accuracy of the original material and the most common complaint that out-of-date items are being re-found, sometimes after several years (Cockerill, 1994).

Secondly, the anarchic nature means that there is little or no control over the content of documents posted over the Internet. National governments may try to apply legislation but it is very difficult to prevent a range of potentially offensive material from being distributed once that material has already been disseminated. Not only that but the USA could be protected by the First Amendment. Also, the offense usually is one of possession of material so once the material is distributed over the Internet it is out of the hands of the main offender. The Internet is international and it is not possible to stop material at the border in the same way that books and magazines can be stopped, therefore, it is left up to individual organizations like Carnegie Mellon.

This is an example of how technological developments have overtaken the ability of the national governments to control the dissemination of information on a national scale. It is not certain whether legislation applying to, for example, obscene publications, can be applied to digitized material because the question that is asked is whether or not it is published. What may be legal in one country is illegal in another: German law prohibits claims that the Holocaust did not happen, but this does not stop white supremacists from the US or another country from transmitting this claim to their sympathizers in Germany.

This is a complicated issue because usually there is a feature of different cultures, for example, codes for women’s dress in Islamic counties. It would be very difficult to find a common denominator that everyone could agree upon that should be censored. Even at an individual level what is offensive to one person may not be offensive to another. This debate is not new, it is just a new medium that it is taking place over.

Internet dissemination is fast, less agreeable to control by governments, it is almost global and the actual potential audience is huge. It is also less public: the same images can be sent to your terminal in your own room.

Material on the Internet: what should be censored?

What is the range of material on the Internet which could cause offense and generate demands for censorship? It is not possible to cover all the possibilities but a highly selective list would prove that censorship is not just about pornography. A look at the alt.* newsgroups would contain material offensive to some people and that is precisely the problem. The alt.* newsgroups are just the most visible groups. If there really were a list it would probably contain anything that caused debate, such as religion, sex, drugs, politics, alternative lifestyles, and astrology, just to name some. It is also possible to visit web sites that seem relatively unoffensive and by following links to other subjects accidentally stumble upon something that might be found offensive.

Another question of censorship can be raised too, what about subjects that people feel are a waste of valuable Internet resources- “should these be censored as a waste?”

The question is raised: why should a university provide the platform to discuss morning cartoons or your favorite movie star? By looking at these questions once again you must ask if it is possible to agree on what should be censored and can we agree that censorship should be exercised at all? The actions of Towson State and other universities can be explained as conformity with local legislation, shifting the responsibility for censorship to the state, which introduces various laws that limit what we can see and read or say and write.

Censorship may be applied to material which governments judge as damaging to some or all of society (e.g., pornography) or to preserve state security. One of the Internet’s most popular and visited sites is Yahoo, a huge index of Internet sites that 1.4 million people use per week as a reference center to guide them around the vast Internet. Yahoo tracks and categorizes about 50,000 different sites around the Internet, ranging from home pages of computer companies to on-line catalogs to news sources. 217 of those 50,000 sites are listed under the category of sex which is 0.4 percent of the total.

Many of the sites under the heading relate to the discussion of health issues. Many others are commercial sites like Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler magazines. Yahoo’s co-founder acknowledges that the sites his index tracks are a fraction of the “millions” of places people can travel on the Internet but he said it is a good representative sample (O’Conner, 1995).

Who should censor the Internet and how?

Due to the lack of a controlling body and the Internet’s anarchic nature, who could act as a censor of the material stored and distributed over the Internet? This is an extremely important issue because the censor or censors would have an enormous amount of power. Right now, it is unlikely that any group exists that could take this role and, it is most likely going to fall on individual organizations, like Towson State, to limit what can be received, as in the alt.* groups.

Also, who could be held responsible for what is distributed over the various sections of the Internet, there are many divisions, such as private email, public databases and bulletin boards, plus sites maintained in both the public and private sectors. Is the moderator of an email discussion list to be held responsible for the contributions of subscribers? Most likely. The President of the Internet Society has indicated that the ISOC has drafted guidelines for behavior on the net but this will probably not deter anti-Semitic and racist groups because it is a form of free speech.

As the Internet becomes even more commercial there will probably be fewer forms of offensive material because these large corporations will censor anything that may offend. The best way to think about the Internet is to think of it as a huge river. If you think of it that way, preventing access to newsgroups is easy because all that is required is to cut out the link coming into an organization, thought this could have the effect of cutting off other organizations further down the so-called river, unless secondary feeds, or tributaries, can be arranged. That is not a complete solution, though, because it is possible to obtain newsgroup feeds from other sources.

Material from the Internet is much more difficult to control because of the nature of the net. It is largely for this reason that governments will have to fall back on legislation over possession, rather than distribution. The only other solution, right now, is for organizations to licenses sites and then have the servers use their power to exert control over the content or space, and then licenses would be withdrawn as a means of punishment or censorship. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has spoken out against a proposed government ban on sexually explicit material on the Internet, calling it “clearly a violation of free speech and…a violation of the rights of adults to communicate with each other.”

Even with Gingrich’s support for a free speech, there was an overwhelming vote in early June, the Senate amended a telecommunications bill to make it a criminal offense to place “indecent” material on-line anywhere children might view it. After the Oklahoma City bombing, a prominent Jewish group called for the monitoring of hate groups on the Internet (O’Connor, 1995).

Currently, such a move is strongly opposed by most of the Internet users because that would ruin the whole anarchic nature of the net where information is exchanged freely and without undue obstacles. A major consideration should be the balance of control and freedom of expression and information.


Currently, there are not any absolute solutions because of the nature of the Internet. There are some suggestions:

  • Parents can teach children safe behavior on the Internet just as they teach them to deal with the dangers present in the real world. – Schools should develop acceptable use policies that establish clear guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. – We should teach all new users to use common courtesy whenever they participate in networking activities.
  • All concerned networkers need to act responsibly and encourage their peers to do likewise.
  • Inappropriate activities should be dealt with in a manner that respects the privacy, intellectual freedom, and human rights of all concerned.
  • Concerned parents should purchase and use blocking software to control sites and material they don’t want their children to access.
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There are also various types of Internet control software like Surfwatch and CyberSitter which are available by email from Classroom Connect (Voicenet,1995).

The best idea is to strengthen the freedom of information which it offers and accept the consequence that some material will be distributed which individuals will find offensive. Then, our responsibility is to ensure that the content of such material is made clear, to prevent anyone from wandering into it innocently.


Example #3

I believe the most important freedom in the first amendment is freedom of speech. It allows us to express our opinion and speak freely is much needed to bring about change in the world. I believe free speech has always been important because we used this freedom for a fight for change. This ability to speak but also to hear other voices too. Josie Timms states that “Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas.

Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offense to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offense in their time.” To me, this quote is important because without this freedom America wouldn’t be a free country. That the most important ideas that came from people used this freedom to say those kinds of words. If you look back in history you will see people like MLK or Malcolm X say speeches to make a change to things like equal rights for nonwhite people.

The biggest belief that the founding fathers had was that a guarantee of free speech to the people would result in a bunch of ideas in which the best ideas stood out from others. Free speech is the only way to get knowledge about the world. Maybe the greatest discovery in human history.

In an article called Why is Freedom of Speech important? An Insightful Discussion on Free Speech states “To truly appreciate the protection of these beliefs, we have to consider a time when citizens never had them. Imagine yourself living in Soviet Russia during Stalin’s rain in power. During this time, all course of dissent from citizens was punished brutally.

From purges to death camps, anyone that disagreed with the Soviets was quickly silenced.” To me, this quote is important because it shows us about the freedoms in some countries where you don’t get the opportunity like us to speak freely about the government or any freedom that is given to us that they can’t have is important to understand. Freedom of speech gives us the ability to write, to research, and to disagree with any type of government in the United States.

Freedom of speech allows everyone the ability, and the motivation to challenge all beliefs. It presents the building block of every other human right we have. If we lose this important freedom, we will lose much more than just freedom of speech. We will lose our humanity.


Example #4

harles Lawrence says that there are strong reasons why some racist speech should be protected. Among these reasons is that tolerance of racist speech should be taught as a value, leaving government regulation out of the picture, and forcing society to deal with the problems by itself. But when free speech conflicts with the elimination of racism, according to Lawrence there is a problem. He highlights the conflicts of legislation by describing current results, i.e., making minorities second-class citizens.

Brown vs. Board of Education says that segregated schools were unequal because of the segregation message that was conveyed; blacks weren’t good enough for white schools. Using this same principle, we need to eliminate certain symbols and signs that show the inferiority of blacks, and he argues that some racist speech should not be protected.

There are many clauses to the First Amendment that ban certain speech. Fighting Words, or words that are likely to incite violence or inflict injury, are examples of banned speech. Therefore, insults that are given face-to-face are not protected under the First Amendment. Racial insults are not designed to do anything but injure the victim or victims. They are a preemptive strike that does not allow for rebuttal. This is because minorities believe they are likely to lose if they respond to these situations, so they tend to remain silent and submissive.

Racist speech cannot be protected if the victims have no other choice but to listen. If the speech can be avoided, then the speech is protected. This is why racial posters and banners in college dormitories should not be protected. Dormitories and other college areas can be considered commonplaces, and there is no escaping the speech within these areas. Equal educational opportunity is evidence for why speech should be banned in these areas. A minority suffers in education when he or she must endure racial injury every time they walk across campus. This is why only announced speech or rallies could be protected, allowing for avoidance or countering of the offensive speech.

Not everyone has endured racist, misogynist, or homophobic speech. Everyone has not experienced victimization by this kind of speech, nor have they seen the harm it causes. It is hard to understand the kind of pain that is caused. In Brown vs. Board of Education, it is stated that segregation affected the hearts and the minds of black children in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

It also said that black children did not have an equal opportunity to learn if they had to be subjected to the humiliation and pain of segregation. This is similar to the sexual harassment decision by the Supreme Court to ban such practices due to the creation of a hostile work environment. Accordingly, racial harassment often causes deep emotional pain.

It will be no trouble to draw the line on some sorts of racial speech. It has been done before with little or no backlash. For example, courts have decided that speech that is obscene, disseminates official secrets, defames or libels another person, or that is used to create a monopoly or conspiracy is not protected. Why couldn’t another change be added to the list of unprotected speech, especially since it would better society as a whole?

There are a few counter-arguments that Lawrence anticipated in his essay. Among these is the argument that states that freedom of speech is the core of the democratic system and that it would be impossible to suppress certain kinds of speech without catching other kinds of speech in the same net. He responds to this counter-argument by saying that the argument is about which basic right (freedom of speech or equality) is more fundamental. There is a constant battle between freedom of speech and the desire to further the cause of equality. However, this argument cannot be furthered without the acknowledgment that racist speech causes real harm, thus negating any sense of equality.

The other counter-argument that he anticipates is the argument that the best cure for bad speech is good. This means the concept of equality is supreme to freedom of speech and will ultimately come out on top. He responds to this by saying that this is a weak argument and for this to work, everybody involved in the fight must not be doubtful of the fight. There have to be ways to offer assistance to those whose speech is dulled because of racial harassment.

Lawrence argues in paragraph 4 that the case of Brown vs. Board of Education is a landmark case that has a huge impact on the freedom of speech arguments. He says in his essay:

The landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education is not a case that we normally think of as a case about speech. But Brown can be broadly read as articulating the principle of equal citizenship. Brown held that segregated schools were inherently unequal because of the message that segregation conveyed that black children were an untouchable caste, unfit to go to school with white children.

If we understand the necessity of eliminating the system of signs and symbols that signal the inferiority of blacks, then we should hesitate before proclaiming that all racist speech that stops short of physical violence must be defended. (P. 4)

This is a very logical argument. He discusses how racist speech in areas where people have no other choice to go, stifles the educational process through its segregation message, and that is why it is illegal. Lawrence brings in a case that is very famous and uses it as a precedent for his argument. This case had nothing to do with free speech, but Lawrence interprets it in very clever ways to show why it is relevant. Using a seemingly unrelated case as precedent to prove his point on this issue is an intriguing approach. It holds up very strongly.,w and is very difficult to argue against. This was his goal and he accomplished it very well. His tone is very logical. Lawrence was speaking to the American Civil Liberties Union, trying to give logical reasons why his ideas were relevant.

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Using a case like Brown vs. Board of Education to prove a point is a very smart tactic and he captured his audience with this argument. Although this argument is based on the law (Lawrence is a professor of law), the argument also appeals to the emotion of the listeners. He is trying to persuade the ACLU; therefore, he needs to appeal to the emotions at some level. He uses this case as precedent, but his argument is also geared toward the idea that blacks were wronged in the past. He is appealing to emotion and the law to get his point across.

Hentoff uses a very strong argument to counter Lawrence s argument. He says that the educational process is not stifled by racial speech but actually improved. He argues that individuals that are protected from bad ideas never learn to cope with the bad ideas. Hentoff argues in paragraph 10 that placing such ideas into remission only makes them stronger and more dangerous. He says that students need to learn for themselves how to identify and deal with these situations.

In this argument, Hentoff assumes that everybody has a choice whether to be around racist speech or not. This is an assumption that weakens the argument. He has a point, where he says that the protected students wouldn’t learn about bad ideas, but where is the line drawn? Which kind of education is more important? Is it ethos education or pathos education?


Example #5

In a society where the media creates stereotypes, showcases imperfect celebrities as role models, and often hurts more than helps the public with its mad rush for ratings, musical expression is an indicator of the times, not a cause of crimes. If Ice-T’s violent and degrading song is offensive, it is because the listeners ask for an offensive. They want to rebel, to shock the world, and musical artists are more than willing to help them out.

The problems of broken homes misled teens, and culture too reliant on its own powers, and not enough on God are therefore reflected in the type of music it listens to. Though the abusive lyrics of musicians, especially rappers, are intolerable to some, the musicians have the same constitutional rights that every other citizen of the United States possesses.

The First Amendment was originally created to provide individuals with the freedom to speak out against the government, but it also includes every other type of speech that may be banned due to its offensive nature. In some countries, it is considered a crime to even express opinions that differ from the holdings of the group in power. In the United States, however, we have the Bill of Rights that guarantees every person with any opinions freedom of speech. That includes every kind of speech. How could the government make a law censoring all “offensive” language? The term “offensive” is too broad to be defined.

The definition would certainly change over time, and a person or group of persons would make the definition depending on what they believe, based on their own predispositions, to be offensive.

Then there is the question of whether or not it really makes a difference and deserves to take up the time of lawmakers battling over the decision of what will and will not be allowed. I believe that a person’s musical selection does not strongly influence his or her tendency toward violence. True, listening to garbage may not influence positive thinking, but it does not have the power to be the sole reason for a person’s delinquency.

A person’s background and family life have far greater power of influence on personality than unrelated musical lyrics ever will. The key to the problem of violence and aggression that is seen in so many teenagers is a renewal of family values and morality. Children need to be taught that love is the most important tool they will ever learn to use; it solves so many problems.

They need to be taught how to love. Instead of delegating so many funds to ban the creative expression of musicians, maybe we should be doing more to reach out to families in danger of teaching children the wrong ideals. Something needs to be done, and quickly before the United States starts seriously considering taking away the fundamental rights of the people.


Example #6 – Interesting ideas

Freedom of speech is already limited. People are not free to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded building. There are laws against slander and libel. Verbal assault is also a crime. In Germany, it is illegal to shout “Heil Hitler!” or deny the Holocaust. One cannot joke about bombs on aircraft or threaten a public official with violence. I cannot plagiarize another person’s ideas and claim freedom of speech.

This isn’t a complete list of such limits but should serve to illustrate that freedom of speech is indeed already limited.

Freedom of speech is a part of our Constitution because it ensures that nobody will be oppressed by the Government based on their views, whether it be religious, political, or otherwise. It is based on the ideology of equality no matter what your views are or your ethnicity or anything else of the sort. Freedom of speech has a few limitations.

Typically, the only time that freedom of speech is not recognized and covered under the constitution is if it directly threatens the well-being of another individual’s basic rights. But that’s difficult to prove one way or another. Hate speech is protected even though it is vile. The Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis can hold rallies and march down the streets shouting hateful things.

But unless they are putting someone indirect, imminent threat by doing so, they are allowed to. Hate speech has always been controversial because for many it’s hard to say with certainty whether a specific hateful comment led to a hate crime, or if the crime would’ve occurred even in the absence of that comment.

As for how it should further be limited, that’s all your opinion. Some feel that hate speech should not be protected under the first amendment. Some feel that the media shouldn’t be able to state opinions as fact without providing evidence. There are many avenues to go with this one. Best of luck.

Freedom of speech has never been absolute; practically none of the Bill of Rights is an absolute right that can never be infringed upon.

You cannot falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater because it would cause a danger to the public. If you tell lies about people, you can be sued for slander or libel. You can’t incite a riot. You can’t hand out government-classified information. There are many restrictions on free speech, and most deal with when one person uses speech to injure or endanger another person or group of people, and I agree with these restrictions as necessary in our society.

However, if you are trying to argue that people should not be able to debate ideas or talk about certain subjects (i.e. in some European nations it is a crime to deny the Holocaust or praise Hitler), then I can’t think of any reasonable argument to support your argument.

The restrictions on freedom of speech that I mentioned above (i.e. libel, slander, public endangerment) relate to most state constitutions, which include freedom of speech right, but also state that a person is to be held responsible for the effects of his speech.

Because we don’t want to live in a country like China. Say one bad word about your leaders and you will find yourself in a labor camp.

In this country, you have the freedom of speech to say whatever you want, but NOT wherever you want. I have the right to not listen to you. You can stand on a soapbox in the middle of a park and badmouth the government all you want. You can’t do that in my living room. You can start your own radio show and talk all you want, but you can’t force another radio show to give you equal time.

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