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Image from Rolling Stone

Mr. President,

I’m writing to provide you a brief explanation of both freedom of speech and freedom of association. You have, I hope, heard of them.

Free speech is the right of every American to say basically anything he or she wants. There are some limitations on that speech (hate speech comes to mind), but the Supreme Court has historically been very protective of this fundamental right and very hesitant to limit it.

Freedom of association is an individual’s right to join or leave groups voluntarily, the right of a group to take collective action to pursue the interests of its members, and the right of an association to accept or decline membership based on certain criteria.

Here’s the thing. Our constitution guarantees individuals’ freedom of speech from government censorship. It prevents government restrictions on speech, not restrictions imposed by private groups or businesses. Restrictions by private organizations are examples of freedom of association. That means that private organizations can place limits on what employees say and do and whom the organization will serve. Organizations may do this because of values they hold deeply, or because of financial interests associated with ticket sales or television ratings. When the NFL requires players to stand, that’s freedom of association. When ABC fires Roseanne, that’s freedom of association. When a bakery won’t bake a cake or an organization won’t run an ad during a certain program, that’s freedom of association. You do not have to agree with it for it to be constitutional.

Americans get to weigh in on these choices, thereby influencing organizations via the market. We can – and should – speak, write, buy, boycott, petition, educate and by every peaceful means possible make our assent or dissent known. But you, Mr. President, do not get to weigh in. You cannot demand things like “take such-and-such off the air” or “make them stand.” You’re the one person who doesn’t get a say because you are the government. When you take a side, you’re making an official, government statement against free speech and free association.

As Americans, we can and should each say our piece. Buy, view, and support, or boycott and speak out against. We all get to participate in the market and influence individuals and organizations, and we should.

Everyone but you.




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