In America, You Get to Speak Your Mind
Historically, we’ve been able to count on a strong legal and cultural consensus surrounding freedom of speech and expression: In America, you get to speak your mind.
Or so we thought. Today, legions of Americans are being kicked off social platforms, losing their jobs, and having their reputations destroyed because they voiced an unpopular or unconventional opinion, used the wrong word, or violated the ever-shifting and increasingly capricious rules as to what constitutes acceptable speech.
Although the legal protections preventing government from censoring speech are still strong, it’s fair to wonder for how long given the broader cultural assault on free expression in America. And this growing hostility is one that should trouble anyone — left, right, or center — who cares about American democracy or the creation of a vibrant political center in America.
That’s why it’s time for Americans to rally around a five point plan to protect and promote free speech:
- Teach the First Amendment from the First Grade On
Civic education in America is a disaster. Only 51% of Americans could name all three branches of government, and only 19% of Americans under the age of 45 could pass an exam consisting of questions from the U.S. Citizenship Test.
U.S. students should be required to complete a civics course for high school graduation and learning about the First Amendment should be a part of it. Educators could model their curriculum on already-existing resources from organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which offers K-12 educators a Free Speech Curriculum covering topics such as the history of free speech, the legal landscape, censorship, how to handle offensive speech, and others.
- Make Colleges Champions of Free Speech and Expression
In July 2014, University of Chiago President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric Isaacs convened a Committee on Freedom and Expression “to articulate the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate.” The Committee’s work resulted in the publication of a statement, known as the Chicago Principles, that provided resounding and unwavering support for free expression and debate within America’s higher education institutions.
Professors, students, and staff who have been intimidated by social pressure should band together to resist it and insist that their institutions adopt free speech protections along the lines of the Chicago principles.
- End Political Discrimination in the Workplace
No employee should have to fear being passed up for an employment opportunity, or worse, losing their job, because of which political party or candidate they support. To that end, states should look to Washington, D.C. as a model for political discrimination law, where discrimination is prohibited in housing, employment, public accommodations, and educational institutions on the basis of political affiliation (which refers to belonging to or supporting a political party).
- Protect Democracy by Protecting Political Speech
A vibrant and functioning democracy requires not only that political candidates have the freedom to speak, but that voters have the freedom to hear them.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed S.B. 7072 in May 2021, which requires big tech companies to be transparent about their content moderation policies and also imposes fines for deplatforming candidates for statewide and non-statewide office. But the concern about the growing censorship of political speech isn’t just shared by Republicans. Earlier this year, in the wake of Twitter banning President Donald Trump from the platform, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders voiced his unease with the move. Even as he denounced what Trump said and stood for, Sanders said, “Do I feel particularly comfortable that the President, the then-President of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don't feel comfortable about that….Tomorrow it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.”
That’s why it’s time for Congress to pass legislation that would increase protections for political candidates and political speech.
- Curb the Censorship Power of Big Tech Companies and Billionaires
Free expression is being challenged across every facet of American life, but many of the debates surrounding this pillar of democracy all converge in one place: online social media platforms created and governed by big tech companies.
In passing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Congress was saying, in effect, that the United States government has a vested interest in promoting a vibrant and open internet economy where people are free to exchange ideas, products, and services, and that the government would therefore grant companies operating in this economy with special protections. But America’s current legal and regulatory framework—which was created decades ago at a time when internet companies were smaller, decentralized, and driven by user content—simply isn’t meeting the moment.
The reach and power of big tech companies has turned their platforms into a 21st-century version of America’s public square. Which is to say, if you or your content gets pulled off Facebook or Twitter today, it arguably has the same impact on your ability to freely share or hear ideas as a government official kicking you out of the town square 100 years ago.
The details of a new framework for America’s Internet Economy will be hard to work out, and a new internet speech framework wouldn’t necessarily have to hew to the precise First Amendment standards that prevent government censorship. But it would have to eliminate the dangerous political and ideological censorship that now has tech companies censoring unconventional opinions on climate change much as they would child pornography. It’s time for the U.S. government to restore free speech and free expression on the internet, America’s 21st-century public square.
The New Center is an organization focused on establishing the ideas and community to create a vibrant political center in today’s America. It recently published a policy research paper entitled, “In America, You Get to Speak Your Mind.”