For many, refusing to be “politically correct” is a matter of principle. To their ears, the phrase sounds Orwellian; an unsettling term that implies the prerogative of some unseen Gestapo, imposing collective standards on individual freedom.
Other folks find it difficult to be politically correct because they prioritize religious or familial beliefs that contradict whatever societal norms are currently acceptable. Others merely lack knowledge (the true meaning of the oft-misused word “ignorance”). Still others are simply mean-spirited or hateful.
Log on to any social media site and you will witness ongoing, spirited battles of political correctness. Person A posts his very definite opinion about a touchy topic and Person B takes bitter offense. The back-and-forth can become so heated that friendships are broken, threats are made, and general bad behavior abounds.
But can standing your ground and sticking by your personal opinion in modern society land you on the wrong side of the law?
Limitations of free speech
“If your actions are not illegal, then you can be as politically incorrect as you would like,” says attorney Nima Haddadi of The H&M Law Firm, PC. “Yet, there are certain types of speech (as well as conduct, writing, and gestures) that are not protected—that being the type which is likely to cause or incite violence.”
Yes, the First Amendment does guarantee freedom of speech in the United States, but that freedom is not absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court has given the government the right to enact restrictions on various categories of speech, which include:
- Child pornography: Any material that visually depicts sexual conduct by children is not protected by the First Amendment, even in the privacy of one’s own home.
- Obscenity: Obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, regardless of whether or not it is harmful to individuals.
- Fighting words and true threats: “Fighting words, by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire) In other words, they present a clear, present, and imminent danger.
It’s those last two categories that can come into play when politically incorrect comments veer into abusive exchanges that lead to incendiary threats.
Free speech isn’t a weapon
“The First Amendment protects against government intrusion on speech, and is generally a shield and not a sword,” says attorney, speaker, and television personality Elura Nanos, author of How to Talk to Your Lawyer.
“It’s unlikely that there are many situations in which a person’s speech would be legally actionable simply because it wasn’t ‘politically correct,'” says Nanos. “However, when speech goes beyond the bounds of what is legally acceptable—such as defamation, certain threats, fighting words, or obscenity—the government is free to restrict that speech, and the First Amendment will provide no protection.”
Nanos served up these examples:
- Calling Blacks “Negroes” is ignorant and in poor taste, but generally not illegal. However, using racial slurs might well be actionable, depending on the surrounding circumstances.
- Donald Trump’s statement that America doesn’t like Carly Fiorina’s face is decidedly not politically correct, but it also is not actionable.
- Any number of distasteful labels applied to Caitlyn Jenner would certainly be “un-PC” but, because she is a public figure, they would most likely not be legally actionable.
“Bottom line,” says Nanos: “We should all be careful with our speech because words have consequences.”
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