The idea of free speech has had an enormous place in the political and cultural history of the United States. Ask anyone on the street what their rights are, or even a child, and they will probably say free speech, even if they know nothing else. “Free Speech” is thrown around a lot and many accuse their political opponents of violating their right to it. This article will examine what the right to free speech protects and doesn’t protect and also instances from across the political spectrum where free speech has been infringed on.
The concept of free speech in the United States goes back to the country’s founding. Part of the Bill of Rights, the right to free speech was enshrined in the first amendment in 1791. It reads, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This means that the government is not permitted to pass laws that restrict or regulate what anyone is allowed to say. The United States has some of the strongest protections of free speech in the world. The first amendment offers only a handful of limited exceptions, such as for threats of violence, verbal abuse, or inciting fear, such as shouting fire in a movie theater. This leaves out something like hate speech, for example, which can be regulated in many other western countries.
The first amendment protection of free speech applies only to the government and public forums and not private companies or individuals. Legally, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are not required to protect speech. This has stoked much controversy, with individuals like former President Trump getting banned from Twitter for being said to violate its policy against inciting violence.
Just because private companies are not legally bound by the first amendment, does not necessarily mean they are justified in restricting speech. Concern over speech suppression in the private sphere has a lengthy history. In an 1859 work titled On Liberty, philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that there is no justification for any entity, government or private, to suppress speech (with the exception of threats and inciting violence). That debate continues to this day, with many conservatives believing that their voices are unfairly suppressed by social media companies that claim to be removing false and misleading information and incitements of violence.
How Liberals are Restricting Free Speech
A common conservative talking point is that free speech is under attack in universities by intolerant, leftwing students and professors. Students and professors overwhelmingly fall on the left side of the political spectrum. This has created atmospheres that have led many conservative students, but also plenty of liberal students, to fear sharing their viewpoints on campus. One study found that 53% of all students and 62% of conservative students felt silenced and uncomfortable sharing their perspectives on campus.
There is a similar story for professors, with two-thirds of conservative professors and one-third of liberal professors falling into the same categories. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech advocacy group, identified 591 instances of professors facing retaliation over their ideas since 2015.
Another concern regarding free speech on college campuses is the ability for controversial speakers to be able to give talks without being disrupted by student protests. One 2021 study found that 66% of college students support speakers being shouted over to prevent them from giving talks, and 23% said they were willing to use violence to stop the talks. Indeed, many speakers have been shouted over or had invitations rescinded due to student backlash over the speakers’ views, including Ben Shapiro, founder of the conservative media company The Daily Wire, black Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley over his criticism of how the left treats black people, and the author Suzanne Venker for her criticism of feminism.
How Conservatives are Restricting Free Speech
Conservatives are not without their own infringements on free speech in the education system. They are increasingly targeting what they label ‘critical race theory’ and other concepts they oppose in the education system with broad and sweeping legislation.
David French, the former president of FIRE, wrote in The Atlantic, “According to the PEN America database, more than 100 pending state bills would limit or constrain free speech in public education. The bulk of these bills attempts to regulate speech regarding race. Framed as “anti–critical race theory” bills, they typically purport to ban the instruction or inclusion of certain “divisive concepts” in public-school classrooms, in college classrooms, and sometimes in public employment or government contracting.” He notes that such legislation can, in many cases, even prevent reading some of the more controversial writings of Martin Luther King Jr.
These bills often contain vague language that can make educators feel like they are walking on eggshells, not knowing exactly what they can and cannot say. Florida’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill says, “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The bill gives no further explanation on what is considered age or developmentally appropriate.
Similar motivations have also driven conservatives to threaten corporations that have expressed left-wing viewpoints. In response to Disney’s covid-19 policies and its CEOs’ public criticism of the aforementioned law, the state’s governor, Ron Desantis, said he was seeking to revoke Disney’s special status that gives it almost total autonomy from Florida regulations on its grounds.
Social media corporations have also been targeted. Texas and Florida both attempted to pass laws that regulate what content social media companies are permitted to moderate. In both cases, the laws were blocked by the courts. In the Texas case, it was reported in the Texas Tribune that the judge ruled that social media platforms are not public forums and the law violates the first amendment rights of these companies to curate their content to create the kind of community they wish to have on their platform. Some conservatives have responded by designing their own social media companies that better align with their views like Parler and Truth Social, created by former President Trump.
What can be Done to Protect Free Speech?
At the core of free speech is tolerance. People are most willing to share their voices in safe environments where they know they will not be punished for their perspectives. It requires a serious commitment from all of us to uphold, whether that is in the voting booth or the classroom. Suppressing speech can often have unintended consequences. As mentioned above, just over 48% of liberal students and over 62% of their conservative peers often refrain from sharing their views, and regulations targeting corporations and social media companies would also prevent them from promoting their viewpoints. It is only a commitment, both in word and in action, to promoting tolerance that can stop trends against free speech and allow our society to debate freely and find productive solutions.