The topic of freedom of speech, especially the First Amendment, has become an extremely pressing issue over the last few years.
In the age of social media, it seems that anything that is said is being recorded, monitored and critiqued. Now more than ever, it is important to decipher the intent and context of what is said. In the realm of politics and journalism, context is crucial.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that Congress (or the government as a whole) cannot “abridge the freedom of speech”. There are really only a few exceptions to this rule, including libel, direct threats of violence, or something that can cause actual harm to people, such as shouting “fire” in a movie theatre.
It is important to note that the freedom of speech only applies to government persecution. Neither the federal or state government can prosecute someone for what they say as long as what is said does not violate one of the exceptions. Freedom of speech does not cover societal consequences or being fired from a job, though no one can legally harm you for what is said.
No matter what is said, context and intent do matter. This is important when works of comedy and satire are in question. The whole idea of comedy is that, most of the time at least, the joke is not meant to be taken at face value. The common phrase “take it with a grain of salt” largely applies to comedy. Satire also is not meant to be taken literally, as the whole idea is that its supposed to be parodying something.
Interpretation of words is an important factor of legal documents and politics. While politicians make dumb statements, people often try to take what they said out of context. This also applies to religious scriptures, which often times are taken out of context or are accused of being taken out of context. In the legal realm, the literal interpretation of words overrides intent or context, especially with ambiguous phrases.
The Osborne Clarke website mentions two court cases where literal meaning overrides intent: Dooba Departments Ltd v. MacLagan Investments Ltd and Arnold v. Britton. In the former, a clause in a business contract was ruled not ambiguous because of the literal meaning of “any.” In the latter, the court decision “emphasised that it is not necessary to consider commercial common sense or the intent of the parties when the wording of a clause is unambiguous.”
When saying or writing anything, always keep in mind of the literal intent of the words or phrases being used. While things like emojis can turn the intent of phrases to mean something else, the literal meaning always applies.
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