10 Things That Aren't Free Speech


Speaking Freely in Limited Public Forums (Like the State Fair)

This shot of the 2014 Minnesota State Fair shows how crowded it is. In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that fairgrounds like this one are limited public forums and free speech can be regulated on their properties. Saurabh Raj Sharan Photography/Getty Images
This shot of the 2014 Minnesota State Fair shows how crowded it is. In 1981, the Supreme Court ruled that fairgrounds like this one are limited public forums and free speech can be regulated on their properties. Saurabh Raj Sharan Photography/Getty Images

Americans have always been able to speak their minds in their own homes, and even outside of them by, say, erecting signs in their yards or passing out leaflets from their property. But as the young nation matured, the Supreme Court began placing limits on when people can heedlessly flap their gums. In Hague v. C.I.O. (1939), the Court ruled people can speak freely in government locales such as parks, sidewalks and the front steps of the state capital — sites that have long been used as public forums for such speech [source: McWhirter].

But since that ruling, the Court further stipulated in other cases that governments can control the time, place and manner of speech in public forums, but only for good reasons and with reasonable regulations. However, it also introduced the concept of "limited public forums," where free speech can be restricted.

The 1981 ruling on the topic was in regard to the Minnesota State Fair, which required any literature sold or distributed at the fair be done so from booths rented on a first-come, first-served basis. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, objected; it wanted to sell its literature by walking through the fairgrounds. But the Court said the fairgrounds were not a public forum, but rather a limited public forum. (With 100,000 people coming through each day, traffic needed to be controlled somehow.) Thus, the fair could place some regulations on free speech [source: McWhirter].

Author's Note: 10 Things That Aren't Free Speech

As a writer, freedom of speech, and certainly of the press, are cornerstones of my profession. Yet a lot of self-censorship goes on. A journalist friend, for example, is gay. He regularly covers religion, so is careful on social media and in other outlets not to mention anything about this in case it would hamper his ability to secure future interviews. Similarly, I rarely comment publicly on politics or religion because I also occasionally cover religious topics. And on a personal level, I find myself again keeping silent on various issues because some family members and friends work in often-charged professions as teaching, law enforcement and federal employment. I wonder if more self-censorship occurs in life than government-levied?

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