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Is “Free Speech” a Defense to Negligence?

IN CERTAIN CASES, THE EXERCISE OF CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED RIGHTS CAN PROVIDE A DEFENSE TO NEGLIGENCE.

Both the California constitution and the Constitution of the United States grant people certain rights–for example, the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and the free exercise of religion.

Religion may provide at least a partial defense to negligence claims, but only if litigation of the claim would require the court to adjudicate the religious doctrines or beliefs in question. That said, the exercise of religious beliefs is not generally a defense to–or able to grant immunity from–a person’s legal obligations. Even when exercising religious beliefs, people have a duty to comply with applicable laws.

People who exercise their freedom of speech–for example, in the context of art and artistic works–are generally not held liable for the actions other people take in response to the art or artistic work. However, if a person uses his or her free speech rights to encourage other people to break the law (or act with disregard for others’ safety, even if legally) and people are injured, the person who encouraged the negligent behavior may be liable.

AS WITH OTHER NEGLIGENCE CASES, CASES INVOLVING THE EXERCISE OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS REQUIRE CAREFUL LEGAL ANALYSIS

Negligence cases arising from harm that results from–or is related to–a person’s exercise of constitutionally protected rights often involve important issues of public policy. Public policy encourages the protection (and use) of constitutional rights like freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. For this reason, public policy generally disfavors legal actions which would have a “chilling effect” on the exercise of these important rights. However, the law also disfavors people breaching their duties of care and creating a risk of harm to others.

For this reason, it’s generally impossible to evaluate a potential negligence or personal injury claim properly without a fact-specific analysis of the specific claim at issue. Never attempt to evaluate your claims (or defenses) on your own. If you have been injured, or someone else claims their injuries are your fault, contact an experienced lawyer promptly for an individual evaluation of your legal rights.

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Disclaimer: THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY, AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR CREATE AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE AUTHOR AND ANY PERSON. Your rights and experiences may vary. Never use an online article (including this one) to evaluate your legal claims. Speak with an experienced lawyer promptly to obtain a personalized evaluation of your claims, possible damages, and options. You may lose or compromise your rights if you delay in consulting legal counsel. Most legal claims (and defenses) are complicated and fact-dependent. If you believe you have a claim against someone who injured you, a lawyer who represented you in a previous lawsuit, or any other type of legal claim, consult an experienced lawyer immediately for an evaluation of your personal rights and claims.

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