When protest is compelled speech, fueled by peer pressure and social media

When protest is compelled speech, fueled by peer pressure and social media
© Getty Images

Another “March for Our Lives” school walkout in protest of gun violence is slated for April 20. It is tempting to celebrate these walkouts as evidence of a growing respect for First Amendment freedoms by our young people. During the March 14 "#Enough! National School Walkout" and March 24 "March for Our Lives," for example, the participation of thousands of students across the country was heralded by the media and praised by many school administrators and teachers who joined them. Yet, we should consider that social media and the peer pressure it represents may affect how students experience a school’s support for a protest, turning free speech into compelled speech.

Social media magnifies political pressures that can undermine free speech, and our schools should be aware of this and avoid supporting it.

Of all our freedoms in America, those associated with the First Amendment — free speech, associational freedoms and religious expression — are particularly vulnerable to the political pressures that threaten them. We have struggled to protect the First Amendment from attacks against it in the form of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1917, the “Red Scares” after World War I and World War II, and more recently, the imperatives of the War on Terror.


Our educational institutions have not escaped the political pressure that can be placed on First Amendment freedoms, either.    

For example, for school students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses the secular recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and a mandatory flag salute was considered to be tantamount to honoring a “graven image” and therefore against their religious beliefs. In Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the religious rights of school students but ruled in 1940 that public schools could compel Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the American Flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

It was not until three years later that the court overruled this decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, recognizing that compelled speech is antithetical to free speech.  

If we have weeded out such practices that compel students to engage in forms of speech contradicting their viewpoints, we have not come to terms with the more recent use of social media to put political pressure on young people — and how schools unwittingly add to this pressure with their support. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the message of the protest, the problem is the same. When someone feels pressured to participate by peers, teachers, school administrators, coaches or others, it is not the content of the political speech that matters.  

On March 14 and March 24, many schools, knowingly or unknowingly, likely became the enforcers of a political message that was effectively promoted through social media. And just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were criticized for not participating in a secular tradition, students who did not want to participate in the "National School Walkout" or “March for Our Lives” likely experienced similar pressure at schools, magnified by the effective promotion of the event and encouragement to join in that only Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can muster.  

Indeed, Snapchats, Twitter hashtags and Instagram posts about the school walkouts flooded these platforms, advocating participation. While the marches were promoted as being organically organized, this was far from the case. Groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety and The Women’s March threw their support behind the movement and, by March 24, “March for Our Lives” was a well-organized protest, complete with a website and social media presence.   

Historically, we have fought against compelled speech in our schools, but in this digital age when social media remind us constantly of how politics invades all that we do, we should be similarly vigilant against compelling students to participate in speech — no matter what the cause. The nature of the political message is not the point; all speech is political, and we must be cognizant of how much power is behind the message and how young people have difficulty escaping the various forms of social media.   

As law professor and author Stanley Fish reminds us in “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too,”:

“Free speech is just the name that we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance; and we give our preferred verbal behaviors that name when we can, when we have the power to do so, because in the rhetoric of American life, the label ‘free speech’ is the one you want your favorites to wear.”

Lisa Nelson is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and an affiliate scholar of Pitt Cyber. The author of the forthcoming book,“Social Media and Morality: Losing our Self Control” (Cambridge University Press), she was a co‐principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to explore the societal perceptions of biometric technology. From 2011-2013 she was appointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Committee.