Expressed or repressed speech?
December 12, 2022
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects freedom of speech from government interference. Yet as American politics becomes increasingly polarized, both right and left-wing parties have weaponized their unique interpretations of this right. With controversial figures such as Elon Musk taking over and reducing censorship policies on Twitter, controversy has spurred over whether his actions serve the true purpose of social media or perpetuates harmful ideologies. As disagreement over the implications of free speech grows, defining the limitations of free speech becomes vital.
“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment, adopted in 1791, protects many rights, including the freedom of speech. A subsection of the freedom of expression, this gives people the right to voice themselves without government restraint. Except for select cases incurring dangerous ramifications, the majority of speech is protected.
“The 1st Amendment does guarantee free speech, but there have been various levels of restraint throughout U.S. History,” social studies teacher David Pugh said. “There are currently laws pertaining to hate speech and insurrection but also, movies were censored in the 1930’s and TV in the 1930’s and ‘40’s.”
Freedom of speech is crucial to a functioning democracy that runs on open debate. While censorship limits a diversity of opinions, free speech is the basis for a marketplace of ideas: a system where the best policies will eventually emerge through inevitable competition with worse policies. This concept assumes that there is inherent hierarchy to ideas and applies the economic concept of the free market to ideas and policies. Allowing the marketplace of ideas to flourish will allow the public to decide and debate on different perspectives. While many aim to prevent circumstances incurred by hate speech, suppressing hate speech may not prevent violence, as prohibiting one from talking may not deter their core beliefs. It could in fact elevate their bias on the topic, since they are censored from discussion of it.
“If taboo topics are censored, it will create more confusion and speculation about these topics, making it harder to find the truth,” said junior Rohan Patel, a pre-trial attorney on the Lynbrook Mock Trial team.
Countries that have more repressive governments impact citizens negatively. For instance, Chinese authorities often censor citizens’ opinions if they contrast those of the Chinese Communist Party. This has been shown by Chinese authorities to violate other rights, including the access of information, and Chinese authorities have the legal right to oversee online content. Not only is this suppression harmful towards Chinese citizens, it also endangers other countries by blocking the flow of crucial information; for example, a lack of clarity around the origin of COVID-19 has contributed to already flourishing conspiracy theories.
“China has had power struggles between an oppressive government and the oppressed people for a long time, and their silence only serves as a catalyst for further conflict,” sophomore Elizabeth Jiang said.
The Iranian government has also historically enforced strict rules regarding the freedom to speak one’s mind. Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died in police custody on Sept. 16 after allegedly wearing an “improper hijab.” Following Amini’s death, many started to protest against the way the Iranian government used violence to maintain religious cultures. This resulted in the shutdown of multiple social media sites in order to try to stop information spread of the protest, which failed. When censorship was ineffective in stopping the protest, police resorted to violence, killing and imprisoning hundreds of citizens.
As seen through the wave of popular uprisings and unrest in authoritarian leaning countries, putting limits on freedom of speech incites civil unrest and in turn, state violence. From China’s censorship during the COVID-19 outbreak to Iran’s censorship during Amini’s death, censorship and state moderation of ideas and free speech have only led to political unrest and needless violence.
At what cost?
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of American democracy. However, limitations in the case of harmful speech are vital to ensure safety. The marketplace of ideas, often touted as a core argument for defending freedom of speech, is a utopian fantasy rarely ever fostering a “level playing field.” Therefore, privatized information infrastructure and social platforms should continue to be allowed to adhere to their own regulations even if that means censoring certain types of speech.
“I think the marketplace of ideas is becoming more polarized and tribal,” said social studies teacher Mr. Williams. “I think that by consuming specific types of media that never challenges their point of view, it makes it hard for people to accept other perspectives.”
Free speech absolutist Elon Musk acquired Twitter in October, with a desire to revamp the content moderation system to be more lenient. In the aftermath of Musk’s takeover, use of gay slurs rose to 3,964 a day, and antisemetic posts rose by more than 61%, with accounts identifying as part of ISIS have come roaring back. The lack of hate speech policies have allowed bigoted people to express themselves rawly in the public eye, quickening the spread of dangerous views.
The First Amendment has a broad definition of freedom of speech and expression, which was acceptable in the 19th century, but is now becoming obsolete and in desperate need of revision. The current constitution protects hate speech as long as it does not incite violence. However, most hateful speech will eventually lead to violence. The modern standard of dangerous speech comes from Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) and holds that only speech that directly incites lawless action can be prosecuted.
“Personally, I think especially on public platforms such as social media, there should be mechanisms to reduce hate speech,” said JSA President Shyon Ganguly. “Especially language that promotes objectively harmful ideologies such as white supremacy.”
In particular, the internet fosters hateful speech which is often underestimated. White supremacy groups traffic in racist tropes, and although may initially be nonviolent, build thriving communities of hate. Skewed framing of subjects drives extremists to violently attack public places. Dylan Roof, who killed nine African Americans in Charlston, S.C., actively participated in online white supremacy groups, where his views were acknowledged and validated. One could argue that hate speech doesn’t pull the trigger, but this doesn’t mean hate speech doesn’t create a climate where dangerous acts are more likely.
“I think in American history, before social media, there have always been crazy conspiracy theories and radical groups,” said Williams. “Now there is a larger forum for this information to get out there, due to social media.“
Since social media platforms are private companies and can regulate speech laws based on their own preferences, the idea of all users having a level playing field for the “marketplace of ideas” is practically impossible. As a private corporation, even having a biased algorithm is within the rights of Twitter. Research done by Twitter employee Luca Belli has even shown that the algorithm amplifies conservative tweets, meaning not each voice is heard equally. However, the cause as to why remains undetermined.
“The diversity of ideas that you generally see in your day to day life are not represented as well in government. Currently, it is difficult to represent the marketplace of ideas,” said Ganguly.
All speech is not equal. In today’s climate, it is evident that truth cannot always drive out lies, and in these conditions, it is necessary to revise the First Amendment and continue to enforce certain censorship laws to adhere to the modern state of the world.