This letter originally ran in the Sunday edition of the Asheboro, NC Courier-Tribune. It was a response to an open call to local residents to answer the question, "What is free speech?"
The concept of free speech is inherently about the Government's relationship to its citizens. It is a mandate that the Government not interfere or prevent speech by individuals, no matter how hurtful or violent. In theory, the state allows freedom of speech to distance itself from tyranny and dictatorial authoritarianism, and to supposedly allow the free flow of ideas and political perspectives to battle it out in a democratic political realm.
However, the reality is that the state has picked winners and losers in that debate throughout all of American history. Easily verifiable examples include the COINTELPRO operation in the 60s, the assassinations of Black Panthers leaders and Malcolm X, and the Greensboro Massacre, wherein federal agents aware of planned violence by the Klan allowed anti-Klan protesters to be killed. With its long history of protecting hate groups like the Klan, free speech in America has been applied very subjectively. That said, "free speech" makes no argument or claims about discourse between citizens, or even non-state actors preventing other citizens from speaking in a certain manner. The 1st Amendment only determines the Government's obligation not to interfere with its citizens' right to speak out politically.
In the democratic realm of political discourse, ie the real world, all actions have equal reactions, and hate speech is often met with severe consequences and backlash from the community at large, including the disruption or cancellation of speakers and hate groups. This is not only completely legal for citizens to engage in, it is the most direct form of democracy- no person should make public statements that they haven't prepared for a response and consequences to. We are all accountable to each other, and part of maturity is understanding that if we don't think before we speak, we lose jobs, get punched, lose friends and dates, etc. That is not a violation of free speech, it's engaging in the real world as an adult.