Freedom of speech is as American as apple pie, at least it was in 1791 when the States ratified the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting constitutional protections, generally, to popular and unpopular speech against unwarranted government intrusion. Over time following the ratification of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States developed few, narrow exceptions to the constitutional right of freedom of speech, acknowledging freedom of speech as a basic, fundamental right guaranteed to all Americans. As a result, Americans have historically enjoyed the strongest speech rights of any population in the world, a core part of the American identity which we should appreciate and take pride in.
Following the killing of French teacher Samuel Paty for his critical cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, the French Government has come under fire, yet again, for selectively promoting freedom of speech for some of their citizens and not others, earning the criticism of civil rights advocates and human rights organizations alike.
Although France is hardly a model for free speech in the world given its domestic challenges, the current French free speech crisis begs that we engage in self-reflection and ask ourselves an important and timely question: what is the current state of free speech in America today?
In danger, I would argue, and I believe that the Internet is a driving force behind this threat on free speech in America. Over the years, the Internet, especially social media platforms, has selectively censored political speech, supposedly due to public pressure, using unpopular (not mainstream) speech, or alternatively, extreme forms of speech, such as hate speech, to justify their censorship practices and lessen public backlash in response to such censorship. This has opened the door for social media platforms to “fact-check” and censor political speech on issues not technically deemed to constitute hate speech, such as human rights, guns, and political candidates. Such censorship would probably be found unconstitutional if done by the Government.
Although private entities like social media companies are generally exempt from the First Amendment as the First Amendment applies to the Government, these restrictions on political speech, done on some of the largest and most popular online information sources, are designed, I believe, to foster a culture of contempt and disregard for the freedom of speech, and ultimately, acceptance by Americans of more free speech restrictions in the future, which far too many Americans, I believe, have come to accept. Indeed, a cursory search of the political discourse around speech issues in American news publications over just the last couple of weeks suggests this to be the case. American news reporters have recently commented that Americans are “rethinking” free speech, that free speech norms “are in danger” and “maybe that is a good thing,” and that “a belief in free speech is rapidly eroding in the U.S.” This is seriously concerning and begs the question of why some Americans would be okay with restricting a right so basic, fundamental, and revolutionary like freedom of speech.
In a healthy democracy where the freedom of speech is respected, it is the “marketplace of ideas,” or the competition of ideas, not the Internet or Facebook or Twitter, that should determine what ideas and arguments prevail over others, what is real news versus fake news, and what is fact versus fiction. Efforts by the likes of social media platforms and other online information sources to selectively censor political speech content not only go against the spirit of freedom of speech, which is to encourage open political discourse and debate, promoting the growth of knowledge and independent thought and judgment in society, they open the door to complacency with regard to freedom of speech and acceptance of greater speech restrictions in the future, unless Americans, collectively, are willing to push back against such efforts.
Just as law enforcement is on the frontline of public safety, and the military is on the frontline of defense and national security, we, the People, are on the frontline of our rights and the Constitution. To repel the current threat on our speech rights, Americans, collectively, must develop a consciousness for their constitutional rights. Consciousness for our constitutional rights begins with knowing what our constitutional rights are as Americans. As for free speech, it is a basic, fundamental right, not a privilege, that is guaranteed to all Americans, subject to few, narrowly tailored exceptions. Consciousness for our constitutional rights is also recognizing the various ways and means in which our speech activities can come under threat, short of explicit government censorship. It also means exercising the highest level of skepticism to discourse encouraging restrictions on political speech. It also means fighting back against intrusions on freedom of speech, not for the sake of free speech, but because we understand that freedom of speech is vital to a vibrant democratic society and that it is part of what makes us Americans.