Like the Bible, gluten, and “Game of Thrones,” the First Amendment is often invoked but not always understood.
On Wednesday, Rep. Lori Saine (R-Firestone) demonstrated a common First Amendment misperception with a ridiculous rant on the House floor:
During a debate about expanding a program to provide driver’s licenses for immigrants (SB19-139), several Colorado Democrats took umbrage with repeated Republican usage of the term “illegals” to describe undocumented immigrants. At one point during the discussion, Rep. Adrienne Benavidez (D-Adams County) asked House members to “use the terms that are in the bill” rather than invoke inflammatory labels. This did not sit well with Rep. Saine, who stomped to the microphone to exclaim:
Thank you, Chair, and thank you Representative Benavidez. I really appreciate you very much on a lot of your work down here, but, um…[pause]…I feel that you are impugning us. We are not children. Not lawfully present also means illegal. Let’s not play around with that. Not lawfully present equals illegal.
So, telling us we can’t use certain words at this well is an abridgment of the First Amendment. [Pols emphasis]
And with that, Saine huffed off. State Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) immediately responded with this:
The term “illegal” is very offensive to people. It’s like calling someone “colored” or “the N word.” [Pols emphasis] That is how it feels to people…it is extremely offensive. So now that we know, maybe we could stick to the merits of the bill and temper our language just a bit because of how it makes people feel. That’s all I’m asking. I wouldn’t expect anybody to call me words that I would tell you are offensive, and now that you know, maybe we can try to change our language to be respectful of people who are truly offended when this term is used to describe them.
We’d love to tell you that this exchange put an end to using the term “illegals,” but you know that it won’t. What the discussion did illuminate, however, was an oft-forgotten point: The First Amendment does not protect you from making a complete fool of yourself.
Representative Saine is certainly not the first politician to misunderstand the First Amendment. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin loved to assert that she had a First Amendment right to not be criticized. Palin was, and is, incorrect. The First Amendment does not prohibit people from saying mean things to Palin or to California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes — or to anyone else, for that matter (we’re also looking at you, Sen. Ted Cruz).
The First Amendment grants all Americans the right to speak freely and assemble peaceably. The First Amendment also establishes freedom of the press and the right to petition the government so that your grievances may be redressed. The First Amendment even protects your right to shoot a gun at a specific page in a newspaper (so long as you are taking the appropriate safety precautions).
The First Amendment is not a license to say anything, anytime, to anyone. You cannot yell “fire!” in a crowded theater in order to cause panic and then hide behind a “free speech” defense. You also cannot libel or defame someone with knowingly-false information (although if that person is a “public figure,” you’re probably fine from a legal perspective).
The First Amendment also does not override guidelines that are clearly stated by private organizations. You can tell us to “f*** off” in the comment section below; we probably won’t remove the comment in part because it just makes you look like a dumbass. On the other hand, we might remove certain disparaging remarks and known falsehoods made by readers if they violate our Terms of Service and because we’re not interested in providing an open forum for irresponsible assholes of any political affiliation.
Words are not just a bunch of letters and sounds, no matter how much Sen. Cory Gardner wishes otherwise. On the other hand, as politicians such as Rep. Saine and State Sen. Vicki Marble (R-Broomfield) have long demonstrated, words don’t necessarily have to form coherent sentences. Democrats on Wednesday weren’t telling Republican lawmakers that they didn’t have the legal authority to use the term “illegals”; they were merely asking that Republicans make an effort to be less offensive to a specific group of people.
So rest assured, Rep. Saine, that you have every legal right to knowingly use offensive terms in a public forum. Just know that those words say more about you than they do others.