Must protect free speech

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis campaigns to erase important legal protections of press freedom, here are some things to know about the First Amendment.

It sharply limits the ability of government — and only government — to penalize news, opinion and other forms of expression, especially when they are political.

For example, a police chief can’t successfully sue someone who criticizes her or him in letters to the editor, even if the criticism is biased or harsh or contains honest mistakes.

But newspapers can refuse to run the letter. That’s editorial judgment, not censorship.

The Supreme Court decision that DeSantis targets was put in place in part to level the field between government and the governed.

Government officials have broad latitude under the Constitution to say what they please in the pursuit of their duties. Their speech is “privileged.”

Justices in New York Times v. Sullivan reasoned that since we are a government by the people, the people are similarly privileged.

That privilege applies not only to journalists but to letter writers, speakers at city council meetings, even the lone pamphleteer.

It must be protected if political discussion is to have the vigor and robustness it needs to seek the truth.

There are limits. You can get in trouble for inciting violence, making threats or making false statements of fact while knowing they are false.

But outside these and a few other exceptions, we’re free to speak our minds.

We aren’t, however, guaranteed an audience. That we have to earn on our own.