English 310 Unprotected speech: what we can and cannot say or write, and why

Dennis Baron

The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech,” but although much of our speech is protected, a great deal of it is not. The First Amendment has never protected obscene speech, incitement to violence, fighting words, or falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, though some of these categories have proved difficult to define. The Amendment strongly protects political speech, but at times during American history it was illegal to criticize the government, and today it’s illegal to conduct any kind of protest on the grounds of the Supreme Court, the principal defender of the First Amendment. Since the earliest days of the Republic, the U.S. mail has protected the letters that we send from snooping eyes. But the same words sent by email, no matter how private they may be to us, are considered public by the law.

This semester, we will study the workings of our language through the lens of protected and unprotected speech and writing: what we can say without fear of legal consequences, and what we can’t. Starting with the murderous attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last year, and the recent free-speech issues at the University of Missouri, Yale, and the U of I, as well as other campuses, we’ll look at the history of censorship, speech bans, and government surveillance of speech. We’ll see how the boundaries between permitted and banned speech shift over time and with context; how advances in technology change the border between public speech and private speech; whether speech codes are desirable or indefensible; and how the concept of intellectual property informs and limits what we can do with our words, and with the words of others.

All readings will be available on line. Students will be asked to write several short papers on the topics covered, and to participate in a group presentation on one of the major units in the class.