The Constitution guarantees all of us freedom of speech. We learn that in school, but as we get older we see it’s not a simple as it sounds.

The First Amendment starts with the words, “Congress shall make no law …,” so the Constitution protects us only from government interference if we speak up. It doesn’t mean we won’t get fired for telling off the boss. It doesn’t mean our co-workers will still like us after they hear what we have to say.

And it doesn’t mean the newspaper has to print our letter to the editor.

Recently I had to say “no” to a letter that met all of our standards but one. At 238 words it came in under the length limit. It addressed an issue – the work exclusion period for asylum-seeking immigrants – that has been reported in our news pages and has been the subject of a number of editorials over the years. And instead of repeating old arguments, it offered a personal, firsthand perspective.

But it had one problem – it was anonymous. The author is an asylum seeker with a case pending in the system, and their lawyer has strongly encouraged them to not say anything publicly that could give an immigration hearing officer any reason to deny their application, leaving them and their family stateless. When the stakes are so high, even a small mistake could have a catastrophic result.

And that’s why I’m thinking about freedom of speech, who has it and who doesn’t.

We have a rule at the newspaper that was in place long before I got here that requires letter writers to identify themselves with their name and town of residence. As the internet has given people more opportunities than ever to comment anonymously, I’m convinced it’s a good rule. There should be a place where people have to stand behind what they say.

But I don’t feel so righteous when I consider how a rule that’s the same for everyone doesn’t treat everyone equally since different people face such different consequences for their speech. What on the surface looks like a fair rule ends up amplifying some views and silencing others.

This writer was objecting to a new rule by the Trump administration that extends the period in which an asylum-seeking immigrants have to wait for a work permit from 150 days to a year. It would also ban work permits for asylum seekers who did not cross the border at a point of entry, or who have filed a late application, even if they can prove that they would face torture or death if they went home.

“These people who were in despair are just asking for better lives,” the letter writer said. “They are willing to take any chance and opportunity the host country will offer. By signing this rule, the leaders are telling them this country doesn’t care anymore for the most basic of human rights.”

We think that criticism of the government like this is fairly routine, mild even. But in a lot of countries it’s the kind of thing that could put you on the wrong side of the regime, maybe land you in jail or worse.

But before we feel too superior, the same thing can happen here, too. It just depends on who you are.

I can criticize the government all day long and face nothing worse than some angry phone calls. But this letter writer could lose their asylum case and be deported to a country where they face prison, torture or death because of who they are. Is freedom of speech a right or a privilege if only some people get to use it?

Just so you know, I’m pro free speech. The more voices we hear, the better we can understand what’s going on. We all benefit, not just the speaker.

I can figure out that this is a bad immigration rule, but I don’t know how it feels to be denied the right to work, and this writer does. “I can tell how hard it is for an adult to not be able to afford to treat yourself or your children with a nice ice cream on the sunny summer day in Maine!” they wrote. “It’s heartbreaking.

The problem here is an intentionally hostile immigration system that’s designed to make life so uncomfortable for people that they won’t want to come here, even if they are running for their lives.

When you have a culture that values work the way we do, it’s cruel to deny people the right to make a living and then judge them if they accept assistance.

It’s too easy to ignore the people you can’t hear. We need to find more ways to make speech truly free.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.