Living in today’s “post-truth era”, it’s oftentimes difficult to differentiate what things actually mean, and I am of the opinion that one of the greatest mass misunderstandings of today’s US citizens is that of one of our most basic rights–freedom of speech.

Anyone that knows me knows that I have a tendency to bring up politics when talking to people, and I oftentimes find myself engaging in debates with people I’ve only known for 5 minutes, people that are 20 years older than me, and everyone else in-between that it’s also completely inappropriate to do so with. Though this is sometimes more of a curse than a blessing, I never mean to come off as argumentative or as someone who is just looking to fight; I’m just an extremely opinionated person with good diction whose social anxiety seems to mysteriously evaporate in politically charged situations (as weird as that sounds; I recognize that for most people it’s the other way around).

But as anyone who’s ever tried before knows, talking to a teenager is intermittently similar to talking to a brick wall, one with no cracks and absolutely no ability to be open to any new perspective once he or she is set in his or her ways. And honestly, one of the biggest fears I have about our generation is that most of us are so unafraid and quick to say whatever pops into our heads. This is primarily because we are the product of a social media run world which not only encourages us to let the entire world know whatever stupid opinion we can think up at the exact moment we think it up, but gives us a platform to do so.

To be frank, I’m all for social media. I think it’s allowed us to grow so much as a population, and though it does bring with it some baggage, as everything does, it’s created some of today’s most forefront celebrities, entrepreneurs, philosophers, and artists. But something that never fails to happen and never fails to irk me is when I’m casually scrolling through Instagram and I see some person with some crusty, ignorant, bigoted, and straight up dangerous opinion, and then everyone’s like “Hey! That’s a bad thing to say because _____,” and then the bigot is like “But freedom of speech!” and then everyone’s like “Oh, right, okay cool.”

“What!!! No!!! That’s not what freedom of speech is,” scream I and all the other Youth in Government fanatics from behind our phone screens. Initially when I started noticing this happening, I just figured that these were just some silly kids on the internet who didn’t know any better, so it’s all okay, because it’s not like our local or national representatives don’t know the difference between freedom of speech and hate speech either, right? Wrong! Not only this, but a lot of grown-ass people out there don’t seem to know what freedom of religion is either!

So folks, put your listening ears on, because today is the day that we all learn what the First Amendment actually means so that we can go on having interesting and courageous conversations with people we don’t always agree with, because having those conversations is part of what makes America great.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Translation: Congress can’t establish a state/national religion or prohibit people from practicing whichever religion they please, and the government can’t prosecute you for speaking or writing freely, peacefully protesting, and petitioning to government.

To the untrained eye, that sure sounds like the government is letting us say and write whatever we want, but nay; the key words here are “Congress shall make no law.” This amendment was enacted in opposition to the old government of England, which America was breaking free of, in which you could be thrown in jail for saying or writing something along the lines of “Screw the King!” The founding fathers wanted Americans to be able to say stuff like “Screw the president!” because they felt that political discourse is essential to democracy. This belief stands today, but I’m tired of hearing people literally persecuting others and then justifying it with freedom of speech, like when you touch base in hide and seek so you can’t get found. Freedom of speech isn’t a cop out or a wall for you to hide behind when you know what you’re about to say is inflammatory. Saying “freedom of speech” doesn’t force me to respect your opinion, it just forces the government to abstain from locking you up unless it’s a situation of hate speech, libel, or slander.

So, to recap- what freedom of speech IS: the freedom to express your opinions without the government censoring or punishing you; what freedom of speech IS NOT: the freedom for you to say whatever offensive crap you can think up. Class dismissed.