Perhaps few human rights have ever received the legal, political and social scrutiny of the concept of freedom of speech. The First Amendment to the United States' Constitution, along with similar passages in the framework documents of other countries, addresses this basic right of citizens to express themselves through written and oral speech. The difficulty with enforcing this ideal, however, lies with the definition of "free speech" and the rights of governments to restrict or censor potentially dangerous forms of speech.
In essence, much of the original US Constitution's content can be boiled down into one sentence: "Let's not do it like England." British laws concerning the rights of citizens to express dissenting thoughts against the government were notoriously strict. The very act of producing a pamphlet or newspaper denouncing the British government was grounds for very severe punishment. When the framers of the Constitution decided to amend the original document, the idea of "freedom of speech," especially where it concerned criticism of the government, became a top priority.
In a legal sense, however, this right does not protect every single word ever uttered or written by individuals. The First Amendment primarily guarantees that the government itself would not infringe on the right of a "free press" to publish articles critical of the government. Citizens also had the right to "redress grievances," which meant they could legally assemble in public areas and deliver speeches without fear of government reprisal.
The concept of has continued to evolve since the days of the American Revolution. It is still legal for private citizens to express controversial or unpopular speech under most circumstances, which means a group such as the Ku Klux Klan can deliver speeches or publish material that denigrates African-Americans or other targeted groups. The rules that govern freedom of speech must be applied equally, regardless of the quality or veracity of the speech itself.
There are restrictions on the concept, however. Certain words and images cannot be broadcast over publicly accessible airwaves, for example. The government still has the right to determine if a form of speech violates existing indecency or pornography laws. Any speech that could be considered provocative "fighting words" or a call to take immediate illegal action is not protected. The idea of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater falls under this concept of prohibited speech.
The legal and governmental concept does not necessarily apply between private citizens and publishers. The Constitution only restricts governmental interference with private expressions of free speech. A private publisher can still refuse to publish a controversial or hate-filled article, and a private owner of a web-based discussion can still remove objectionable posts unilaterally. While citizens may enjoy the benefits of freedom of speech, there is also the concept of "freedom from speech," which protects the general public from immoral or inflammatory forms of expression.
Freedom of speech is an important human right, and one worth defending against threats of arbitrary governmental censorship or repression. With such freedom, however, does come great responsibility. It does allow controversial artists, radio shock jocks and others to push the envelope of acceptable speech and artistic expression, but there should still be some safeguards in place to protect the general population from extreme forms of speech which violate community standards of decency.