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Speech isn't free — is it time for a constitutional fix?

Speech isn't free — is it time for a constitutional fix?
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Words have weight, meaning and implication. They can also bear a heavy cost. In a world where information, data and words can be misconstrued, misunderstood and manipulated, we need to move away from the idea of free speech and instead to one of rights to speech. 

Rights confer a privilege to be understood and considered when communicating. This should bring to bear the implication of speech associated with context, audience, platform and interpretation. As a society inundated with false information, we need to be cognizant of the data we receive and our subsequent reaction, as well as clarification of our societal rights. 

My hope is to stimulate critical thinking associated with rights and actions as citizens, how those rights were intended when conceived and how we could reimagine them to work for broader  segments of society. As I write, I am considering how individuals might interpret (or misinterpret) my message and how it might make them think, feel and act. I believe that we have a right to speech but speech is not free and we have a responsibility to critically think about our words associated with the intent and the interpretation — especially those elected into public office.   

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Like many others, I watched what happened Jan. 6 at the Capitol in disbelief and thought about how these actions may further polarize our country and disrupt our democracy. After the incident, and now, as we assess accountability and try to repair the damage, the debate about free speech and censorship has come into stark focus. The framers of the Constitution understood inalienable rights associated with living in a democratic republic. They drafted one of the most important documents in our nation’s history. We have to understand the context when this document was written and who drafted it.

In 1787, the population of the 13 colonies was approximately four million. Today’s society looks and functions much differently than when the document was written. To voice your opinion and try to sway public sentiment in the 1780s, you needed access to a printing press and an army of volunteers to spread your message. Without those means, the layperson could voice their opinion in the local pub, gathering spot or town hall and it would take extraordinary effort to get it carried outside of those confines. Today, you simply need a social media account to get your opinion to a global audience.

I believe the architects of the Constitution hoped that “the people” would continue to revise this document based on changes and evolutions in society. Although not an original framer of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson asserted that it would need to change every 20 years. In his view, governments needed to adapt to survive. The last major amendment to the Constitution occurred 40 years ago, lowering the voting age to 18. Amendments are relatively minor changes. Without continual refinement, people tend to interpret broad policy based on their personal views and ideology.  

Only President Trump knows his exact intentions when he made those incendiary comments. Perhaps, he was angry, acted out and did not think how his words would be acted upon. Perhaps he did not put a lot of thought into the context, the platform, or how his audience would process and respond to his message. It appears he wanted a reversal to what he believed was an unfair process and an election that he believes was stolen from him

His words, built upon months of sowing doubt and mistrust in the institutions he was sworn to uphold, left his followers and supporters to interpret the means to the end based on their beliefs.  Only after the violence and urging from other officials did he recalibrate and mention peace. Even though he might not have intended harm, it was misconstrued to create an abuse of force, endangering all those involved. I do not think this makes him evil but rather incompetent as a leader and an elected official. Thinking carefully about the cost of words, empathic listening, rational actions, flexibility, agility and critical reasoning are characteristics of true leaders.  

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At Carnegie Mellon University, I work with organizations whose industries are being disrupted through fragmentation, consumer privacy, security violations and increasing levels of regulation all while trying to evolve to become more digital. Digital disruption has notable impacts, including rapid reduction in relevancy, trust and ability to adapt. I believe we are witnessing disruption to our democracy. Unless we make substantial changes and address our inalienable rights, we may witness continual disruption.  

Government will not work for large segments of society that feel disenfranchised, unheard, isolated and to some extent — duped. They have been sold a bag of false goods from an effective con-man with no means to balance the discussion and weigh the evidence for themselves. If we don’t address situational complexity and engage with all segments of society in a tangible way, disenfranchisement will continue. In a world of growing complexity, we need to bring this skill to the forefront.

As Twitter, Facebook and others boot Trump off their platforms due to his actions and his continual violation of their policies and terms of use, have they violated an individual’s right to free speech? Did they overreach censoring an individual’s right to be on the platform and say what they want? These platforms are private companies that must balance fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, obligations to their members and ethical responsibility to society. Trump continually violated their policies against hate speech, abuse, inciting terror, etc. He was largely exempted from these actions since he was a public figure. His use of Twitter as his primary mouthpiece constitutes a direct, unfiltered and instantaneous line to his followers and the public. This allows raw, unchecked emotion to be communicated and shared. It also removes the process of time to weigh the words accordingly.  

We have a unique multi-faceted and complex society. Without a means to bring all into a discussion using evidence, we will continue disruption and disenfranchisement. We need to figure out policies, governance and engagement tactics to represent the majority of our republic including the words we chose to use. 

Ari Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. https://www.heinz.cmu.edu/faculty-research/profiles/lightman-ari. The views in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CMU.