The right of Americans to say what they mean, verbally or symbolically, is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. However, this does not mean that you can say anything to anyone anywhere at any time. There are boundaries that have been established over the years by the courts to ensure that the freedom of speech of one person does not impinge on the rights of other people or cause undue harm. The body of case law over this issue is extensive and complex, but there are some general rules that make it easier to determine when the line has been crossed in particular circumstances. Here are some instances where speech is not protected under the Constitution.
When it incites violence
Keep in mind that words can be powerful incentives to act. While a person who speaks may not be the physical actor in an illegal or violent event, if the words incite this type of event, he or she can be held criminally liable. A good example is inciting a group of people to kill or injure a certain type of person as a matter of principle. This presents a clear and present danger that has to be prevented.
When they are “fighting words”
It is not simply a comic way of describe derogatory, insulting, or obscene words that elicits an immediate, violent response from the listener. This is actually a legal doctrine to define when a verbal act is not protected and can be criminally punished.
When they are false
Libel and slander are the terms used for any verbal or written declaration that misleads the listeners into believing falsehoods about another person or an organization. There is no protection under the law for saying something which is not true and results in damage to the subject of the lies.
When it conflicts with government or social interests
When saying something can put others in danger, even if it is true, the freedom of speech can be suspended. In times of war, for example, broadcasting troop movements would be a breach of national security. In a trial, the court can issue a gag order on witnesses and attorneys to ensure fairness subject to certain criteria.
While Americans are justly proud of their constitutional rights, these are not absolute. There can be restrictions placed if the circumstances justify it.