COMMENTARY: Compelled Speech

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When we think of the First Amendment, we usually think about how the government is not allowed to suppress or prohibit speech. But MTSU Professor of Journalism Dr. Larry Burris says free speech means the right to say what you want:

But what about the government requiring you to speak? Should the government be allowed to force you to say things you don't believe in? Or does the First Amendment protect against what is commonly called "compelled speech."

In its recently completed term, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered three opinions saying the government cannot compel you to engage in particular kinds of speech In all three cases, the issue was state power versus individual freedom. And in all three, individual freedom won.

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In one case, Illinois had a law forcing public sector workers to involuntarily support union activities with compelled donations.

In a 5-4 decision, the court said the union could not force workers to support their activities if the employee disagrees with how the money is spent.

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A second decision, roundly misunderstood, was not decided on First Amendment grounds, although it did involve compelled speech.

In the Masterpiece Cake Shop case, the court said the state of Colorado was impermissibly antagonistic towards a baker's religion when he refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

The case was sent back down to the lower court which, legally, means the Supreme Court did not render a decision either for or against the bakery. Interestingly, the court decision enunciated strong support for both the baker and the gay couple.

The third case came from California, and in a 5-4 decision, the high court said the state cannot compel religiously-affiliated pregnancy centers to post a notice advising clients of state-funded abortion services.

But as in numerous previous decisions, the Court has defended both abortions and free speech rights.

We're in the middle of a national debate about the structure and function of the U.S. Supreme Court. And the last term shows how decisions are not just "out there." The impact our daily lives as well.

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