I’m a free speech absolutist. At least that’s what I told a group of people at the University of Southern Maine this summer, as they were telling me about their plans for a yearlong series of events that explore issues of race and politics on their campuses and beyond.

I meant it when I said it, but now I’m not so sure.

My bold statement of principle came when the discussion strayed to how the university, like public institutions all over the country, is struggling to balance the need for everyone to hear controversial points of view while protecting all members of the community from abuse.

That’s easy, I thought: The antidote to bad speech is more speech. If you have faith in your convictions and in the people around you, you’ll believe that the audience will be able to sort out the good from the bad.

But what if you can’t speak, one woman asked. What if the consequences of standing up would cost you your job? What if it would interfere with your immigration case? What if it could expose you to violence?

Those questions have been swirling around my head as I watch this strange spectacle of professional athletes and the president of the United States fighting over symbols – with the flag and national anthem being translated into coded messages about racial justice and racial backlash.

Some people defend the players’ protests, which call attention to African-American victims of police violence, as protected free speech, and they’re right. Others agree with Donald Trump, and believe the players should get fired, or at least booed, for disrespecting the national anthem, and that’s free speech, too.

But the more I think about these events in the context of the questions I got at USM, the more I see that this isn’t about free speech at all.

It’s about power – who has it and who doesn’t. Freedom of speech might be for everyone, but being free to speak comes in limited quantities, and some of us don’t get any at all.

Most Americans could boo an NFL player with impunity. Many of us can boo the president. But very few of us could boo our own boss.

So, even as we listen to the words people say, we need to remember that not everybody gets to talk.

The First Amendment does cover everyone – you don’t have to be an adult, pay taxes or be a citizen. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” End of story. But the Constitution doesn’t say anything about the consequences that follow your speech.

Depending on what you say, you might lose all your friends. You might get punched in the nose.

You might even get arrested, if a court can be convinced that what you said qualified as “fighting words,” or “those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

That standard was not created by some overprotective University of the Beloved Snowflake, by the way.

It comes from a 1942 Supreme Court case, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, which upheld the arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness who had called a police officer “a God-damned racketeer” and “a damned fascist.” During World War II, those were considered fighting words. (In 1806, future President Andrew Jackson killed a man who had called him “a poltroon.”)

The powerful can get away with a lot. President Trump (who, I believe, actually is a poltroon) knows what all bullies know – how to pick on the weak and use the crowd as a weapon. In Alabama last week, Trump told a mostly white audience that players protesting police violence against blacks showed a “total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” The line got huge applause.

Some colleges have been ridiculed for creating “safe spaces” where what can be said is limited in order to protect people who could be hurt by hate speech. But there’s always going to be a “safe space” to express an opinion like Trump’s. That’s how power works.

I am still a big believer in the freedom of speech, but I’m not sure I will call myself an absolutist again. (Note to self: You will probably regret saying any sentence that includes the words “I am a (fill-in-the-blank) absolutist.”)

We all have rights, but we also have duties, and one of them is to do more than speak. We also need to listen.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: gregkesich