Freedom of Speech: Right, Responsibility, and Respect

This month, on November 8, the most contentious political campaign, certainly in my lifetime, came to an end. However, the rhetoric of hate incited during the campaign remains, and has even increased, in its aftermath, and violence is not only a threat but also now a frightening reality. Also frightening is the threat to oppress and imprison those who exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech and the press as declared in the First Amendment: “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.”

That being said, with this freedom comes responsibility. While we have the right to express ourselves in speech (and writing), we do not have the right to threaten the lives or well-being or actually attack those who disagree with us or whom we deem as different, bad, or wrong. Along with responsibility, freedom of speech demands respect—respect for the viewpoint, religion, and lifestyle of others, and their right to express them.

This also includes respecting the creative works of others. Freedom of speech does not give us the right to use another’s written words for our own ends without the originator’s (or in some cases the publisher’s) permission to do so. Not obtaining this permission can result in legal action due to copyright infringement. As a legal studies major, I am hypervigilant with regard to this issue, often leaving the comment “Please obtain the necessary permission to reprint, if necessary” in the margins several times throughout the manuscripts of my clients. Authors typically mean no ill will; they simply are not aware of the necessity of receiving the proper permissions or of the potential legal consequences for failing to do so. One of my responsibilities as a copy editor is to bring this vital issue to authors’ attention and hopefully spare them a world of legal woe.

Authors often ask me what requires permission, what doesn’t, and where to go from there. I have found the following excellent sources:

  1. Author’s Permission Guidelines from The University of Chicago Press
  2. “Is It Fair Use? 7 Questions to Ask Before Using Copyrighted Material”
  3. “Requesting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter”

Freedom of speech is our constitutional right, and threats of the oppression of this right and of imprisonment for exercising it makes my blood run cold. At the same time, we must remember that freedom is not free; along with the right to freedom of speech, we must do so responsibly and with respect. Freedom is only freedom if it applies to all.