America's support for free speech is dwindling

America's support for free speech is dwindling
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Free expression is a foundational principle of the human condition. The notion took root in what America’s constitutional framers crafted as the First Amendment. The idea has always been controversial and difficult to define. It has forced the nation over the years to seek a functional interdependence that allows for people to speak and ideas to circulate without government interference. This guiding principle has served the nation well for over two hundred years.

The nation’s commitment to the principle of free expression, however, is today on the verge of unraveling, as too many Americans seek to shut up the people and stifle the ideas that don’t suit them. Such antagonism to respecting free expression rights of fellow citizens explains the uncivil and polarized tone that dominates the nation’s public sphere.

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The Freedom Forum’s annual survey on the First Amendment reveals a startling and depressing picture of how citizens view this foundational principle. One in four Americans believes the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” This result is quite curious in that a shocking 40 percent of Americans surveyed could not even name a freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment. A meager 36 percent could name only one of the five guaranteed freedoms. Americans who have so little awareness of the First Amendment are unlikely to live out its promise and see its value to a self-governing and civil society.

 

The Freedom Forum survey respondents, however, are comfortable entrusting social media companies to police the content of those platforms. Three fourths of Americans surveyed want tech companies to remove hate speech, false information, personal attacks and pretty much anything else they don’t like from social media sites. Further, half of all those surveyed think the government should mandate social media sites remove objectionable content. Constitutional framer James Madison would be ashamed at this uninformed endorsement that private tech companies and the government should decide which messages are allowed into the public domain.

Thus, the big tech companies have the cover of broad public support as they venture into the dangerous territory of self-righteously deciding what content is allowed in the digital sphere. These social media platforms positioned themselves for years as creating arenas for unfettered public dialogue. Now, however, these tech giants are caving to public pressure and have anointed themselves as referees of civility, fairness and truth.

Sure, as private enterprises, these social media outlets can restrict and delete as they please, but Americans should not be snookered into thinking such digital censorship can be done efficiently and fairly. Most everybody presumptuously assumes their digital media posts are acceptable and it is the other guy’s posts that need to be deleted as unacceptable in the public dialogue.

It is truly naïve to think that tech companies can really rid social media of fake news, extreme views, dehumanizing content or whatever makes anybody uncomfortable or offended. They can’t hire enough screeners to fully scrub the social media universe. It is foolish to entrust national content control decisions to intern screeners at Facebook or YouTube. And, make no mistake, whatever mammoth efforts are taken by the tech companies or even government, the problems of extremism, antagonism and false content will not go away.

The tech giants are basically surrendering to digital mob rule when they take on the task of content control of social media sites. They also underestimate the capacity of a sensible citizenry to assess and ultimately reject extreme, false and nonsensical content. The First Amendment puts confidence in people to make rational judgements. Advocates of censorship believe only they can decide what expressions are suitable for public debate.

Another recent poll, by Ipsos, has more disturbing evidence that Americans are abandoning the nation’s First Amendment foundation. Twenty six percent of respondents agree that the president “should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” Forty three percent of Republicans endorse that statement. Such sentiment is not healthy in a functioning, free society.

Free expression in a society has its warts, no doubt. Crazy, fake and even offensive content is allowed to circulate freely. It is a dangerous tradeoff, however, to discard this broad principle of human freedom because of the circumstance of an Alex Jones or any other speaker with whom loud segments of society might disagree. Societies that abandon the principle of free expression in response to contemporary pressures or for expedience soon find that other human rights also head down the drain.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.