July 25, 2019
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”
Speech can come in many forms: a social media post, a discussion with friends, a dinner table conversation, or an address before a crowd. Freedom of speech is the most readily identified freedom we recall from the five freedoms of the First Amendment. According to the Freedom Forum Institute’s 2019 State of the First Amendment Survey, 64% of participants could identify speech – 35% more participants than religion, press, petition, or assembly. This speaks to how much we value the freedom of speech: we know its importance to our democracy. But in many ways, the nature of speech is changing.
Enter: the world wide web. Today, tweets, posts, blogs, and beyond can be fired off from our fingertips, in many ways, changing the very nature of what constitutes “speech.” The public square of my generation has shifted largely online. From memes to cat videos to distilled platforms of the presidential candidates, the internet has it all. But how free is speech online? And who should decide where the limits should be?
Twitter – a social media platform that was built, in theory, around the objective of giving everyone a voice – is a prime example of these blurred lines. For politicians, Twitter gives the opportunity of a far-reaching online public forum. But what happens when not all are able to participate? A recent federal court case, Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, probed this issue. The court ruled that by blocking followers from his personal Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, access to a public forum was limited, and thus a violation of those users’ First Amendment rights. Such a precedent has led to legal action against other politicians, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But on these tech platforms, who and what decides the bounds of free speech? Tech companies are under to at times either to allow all content or to clamp down on certain extreme, untrue or otherwise dangerous content. In what may have seemed like a counterintuitive move, Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote op-ed asking legislators to help update “rules” for the internet, rather than the platform continuing to chart its own course. Whether it’s deciding to filter fringe views or anti-vaccine misinformation, who decides where the line where freedom of speech lies?
In other parts of the world, censorship and surveillance severely limit free expression. In March, Russia passed two censorship bills: one censoring “fake news” and the second banning the insulting of public officials. Russians can face fines and jail time for publishing online material that disrespects the state, society, symbols of the Russian Federation or Putin himself. This bill also subjects websites that share “fake news” to fines. In essence, these bills allow the Russian government to have unconstrained authority to deem any speech unacceptable.
This reality of internet suppression has become eerily commonplace. Digital authoritarianism has become a tangible way for governments to assert and maintain power. According to Freedom House, China was the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018. But beyond censorship and monitoring of its own people through the internet, China has also become a known exporter of these tools and tactics to other governments with a poor record of human rights. Egypt and Iran rewrote their media laws to include social media users and blocked foreign social media and communication services. As we look at freedom of expression around the world, we ought to pay particular attention to the limitations placed on speech online.
To me, freedom of speech is fluid and all-encompassing. Limiting the freedom to speak one’s values and opinions is in direct opposition to the concept of democracy. As we advance through the age of the internet and constant communication, I believe we have the responsibility to understand and to value our freedom of speech, as we continue to determine what that means in the midst of a changing world.