Freedom of Speech

I often answer questions at Quora.com. Some are fun to answer, but others are disheartening. I’m especially bothered by questions written by people who seem to be afraid to use normal English. Here’s an example: “How do the media recognize freedom of speech?”

Good grief. How would you “recognize” freedom of speech? Would you say “I recognize that!” when someone read the First Amendment to you?

I think the person was trying to find out how the media practice freedom of speech. I explained that freedom of speech means that Congress can’t pass laws limiting what we say or write. There are a few exceptions (such as slander, libel, and lying under oath) – but not many.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you want. (Try shouting at your boss, and you’ll quickly figure that out yourself.) Nor does it mean that people can’t disagree with you. Open disagreements and debate are vital to a democracy. Nor does it mean that you can march over to a TV station and insist that they let you appear on tonight’s news broadcast.

OK. Back to my original point. When you write (or speak), you need to use clear, simple language. Here’s another example. This morning someone on Quora asked if the double standard in academic publishing was the reason no one reads academic articles any more.

Whew. If you’re familiar with the error called “begging the question,” you know that the poster made two errors. First, he assumed that academic publishing has a double standard. Second, he assumed that people have stopped reading academic journals.

I pointed out both problems – and got a response that it should have been obvious that he was talking about scientific publishing.

As I said, whew. Apparently he has a gripe with a scientific journal. Maybe it’s a legitimate one, and we could learn something from him. But there’s no way to tell from the question he posted.

So: a plea. Skip the gobbledygook. Make sure you’ve said – plainly, clearly, and powerfully – what you meant to say. You’ll save all of us a lot of time! And there’s another benefit: Your own life will roll along more smoothly. Good communication is one of the keys to living well.

The Founding Fathers

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