Home Opinion OPINION: Speech may be free, but it has its limits

OPINION: Speech may be free, but it has its limits

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Opinion writer Dawson Mecum explains how one firefighter learned that the limits of free speech could metaphorically light his world on fire.

Recently, there has been a lot of debate about what type of speech is actually protected by the First Amendment and how far speech can go before it crosses that line. The protection of free speech is the right of every American citizen, and no one should have their speech banned. Government involvement in free speech issues only further restricts what can be said. Issues with the limits of free speech should be resolved between people.

But sometimes, free speech can backfire. Racial slurs have often been the target of this debate, along with the misconception that violence and speech are the same thing. It’s worth noting that individuals in positions of authority have different ethical standards for speech. If they are expected to protect and represent everyone in their community, their speech and actions have to reflect that.

Tyler Roysdon is a volunteer firefighter in Franklin Township, Ohio. According to WHIO, Roysdon was caught in a back and forth argument on Facebook which included Roysdon making a racially charged post during the initial argument.

This blurred screenshot taken from Tyler Roysdon’s Facebook page is courtesy of The Cincinnati Enquirer. In it, Roysdon wrote “one dog is more important than a million (expletive).”

Roysdon deleted this post shortly after it was uploaded, but not before it was seen by family, community members and local authorities. Roysdon was suspended without pay by standing Fire Chief Steve Bishop, who made the decision because of his offensive post.

Bishop is quoted as saying, “This is not acceptable behavior for a township employee. As a rule, all employees are given a closed-door disciplinary hearing that gives them a chance to provide witnesses or evidence proving their innocence.” This will give Roysdon a chance to defend himself and his job position. According to Journal News, Roysdon has his hearing set for Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m.

This instance happened while racial tension is palpable in the U.S. Recent events, such as the Charlottesville protests, have raised the question of how far speech can go before it exceeds the limits of the protection that is given to us in the Constitution. Others feel as though there should be no consequence to any comments made and that everyone should be able to speak their mind, regardless of the content of their speech. 

Even hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, so long as it does not incite violence. Without this right, the government would be able to decide what speech is allowed, which would give the government the tremendous ability to control what people think. Without the First Amendment, the government could silence those who disagree with them by claiming that any speech not in agreement with its own is banned.

Also, who decides what speech is and isn’t offensive? An idea that may not be offensive to one person could potentially be offensive to another. That is the beauty of American rights. People can say and think whatever they want, which creates a rich, intellectually diverse culture where everyone can think in their own way and be themselves without having to worry about their thoughts being policed.

But when representing an organization like a fire and rescue station, it becomes less about free speech and more about how you represent that organization. Roysdon’s comments were racist. His rhetoric affected his credibility as a fireman, so he was suspended. A person who makes a living saving lives should not be making comments that cast doubt over his ability to serve everyone. Reysdon apologized for his racial comments but the damage was already done.

Roysdon has every right to speak his mind and stand up for what he believes within the limits of the Constitution, just as every other American does. He lost his credibility as a fireman and lost the trust of those who may need him to save their life. He should be fired for that. Those who are expected to protect and represent their communities have higher expectations when it comes to behavior. Although the First Amendment protects what can be said, misrepresentation can result in unforeseen consequences.

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