The right we refer to as "freedom of speech" is, as you probably know, a Constitutional right. It's part of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, one of the amendments known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Do you know what it says?
If you do...if you're really, really sure you do...you don't need to read any further. But if you're like the dozens and dozens of people I seem to encounter in online forums every day, you'd better check this out:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It's a short little amendment packed with important concepts, and maybe that's why one of the most critical concepts of all tends to get overlooked. You might have noticed it this time around. Yep, I'm referring to the introductory clause (Who pays attention to those? You just write those to help stretch your paper to meet the minimum page requirement, right?) that MAKES IT CRYSTAL CLEAR THAT THE FIRST AMENDMENT LIMITS ONLY GOVERNMENTAL ACTION.
In fact, if you simply look at the language of the amendment itself, you'll note that it refers only to Congress. What about states? Surely states are limited, too? And, in fact, they are. That's because the restrictions on Congressional action set forth in the Bill of Rights have, in large part, been explicitly extended to the states and other governmental agencies.
They have not, however, been extended to your next door neighbor. It is NOT a "violation of free speech" when he tells you to stop screaming at your wife in front of his kids. It hasn't been extended to your local video store owner--he's free to decide not to offer titles that contain material he considers offensive. It's NOT a "violation of free speech" when a message board administrator or blog hosting company takes down your comment. It's not even a "violation of free speech" when a wholly unreasonable right-wing religious leader points a gun at you and tells you to repent your liberal leanings or burn in hell forever. Some of these things are perfectly legal. Some fall into gray area--for instance, the message board administrators and blog hosts are typically bound by their own terms of service. Some--like the guy with the gun--are flat-out whacked and criminal offenses to boot.
But none of them...not a single one...implicates your free speech rights. Why? Because there was no governmental action. Period. A website cannot infringe on your free speech rights (unless it's operated by a governmental entitity). Another user on a message board or in a forum cannot infringe your free speech rights (unless he acts "under color of law", representing some governmental entity). A restaurant owner cannot infringe your free speech rights...you get the idea, right?
Fifty times a day, someone on the Internet yells "what about free speech?" in a context that has nothing to do with governmental entities--and those are only the ones I see. The only viable answer is, "What about it?"