Free Speech Friday: When Free Speech is a Crime


I set out to write an objective, thoughtful analysis of the line between when free speech is a right and when it is a crime.

I failed.

How can you be objective about freedom of speech? It’s what my career as a journalist is based on. It is what all of our other freedoms rely on, because if you take away our right to speak out against injustice, injustice will surely follow. But what about when free speech is committed as a deliberate and knowing violation of the law? That’s the question brought up by the case of 17-year-old Savannah Dietrich of Kentucky, who tweeted the names of the two boys who sexually assaulted her (and pleaded guilty to the crime) but agreed to a plea deal in which Dietrich felt they “got off easy.”

The two boys assaulted Dietrich after she passed out at a party, and then posted photos of the attack on the Internet and shared them with their friends.

Despite a court order that the offenders’ identities be kept private, Dietrich posted both names on her Twitter and Facebook pages. The boys’ lawyer pushed for a contempt charge, and Dietrich faced up to 180 days in jail and a possible $500 fine. However, as she told Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper, “I’m at the point that if I have to go to jail for my rights, I will do it.” She won’t have to, though, because her attackers’ attorney dropped the contempt charge Monday.

In speaking up for her rights, Dietrich is potentially standing up for the rights of anyone else who might be victimized by her two attackers. If you knew someone was a predator, could you stay quiet even when threatened by jail time? Could you bear the weight of that knowledge for the rest of your life, knowing your silence might put other people in danger? Along with the right to freedom of speech, isn’t there also a responsibility to exercise it when the public good is at stake?

Dietrich’s story has quickly transformed from a matter of justice for violent crimes to an examination of freedom of speech in private life. Though we rarely hear people outside the media defend the right to free speech, it is clearly important to the American public, who didn’t hesitate to speak up in defense of Dietrich’s right to tell her story. An online petition calling for the contempt charge to be dropped gathered 62,000 signatures in just one day, and representatives of the press defended Dietrich’s right to speak out, saying the contempt charge brought up First Amendment issues and had wide-ranging implications for freedom of speech.

As a journalist I initially felt compelled to present some profound, definitive answer regarding the role of freedom of speech in this case and the ethics of Dietrich’s actions. However, all I have are questions. Questions for the legal system. Questions for myself. Fortunately, it’s my job to ask questions, and encourage others to ask questions. There is no simple answer for a case as complex as this, and only by continually asking ourselves what free speech means to us can we hope to preserve it.

Image Credit: Wikipedia user Stefan-Xp

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