There is no doubt that maintaining free speech in America is important to all of us. It’s a right provided by the First Amendment over 200 years ago. However, the fact is free speech, as we know it, is a relatively new concept (within the last century). Unfortunately, the modern digital world has challenged free speech again like never before. Below, legal expert Barry McDonald explores free speech in the digital age and how it has promoted government censorship of American Citizens.

Why Exploring the Historical Perspective of Free Speech Is Essential

protesting and the evolution of free speech

Americans today think of free speech a bit differently than they did even 100 years ago.
As McDonald notes, “Free speech is really a modern concept. As late as 1919, people were being thrown in prison for opposing Woodrow Wilson’s involvement of America in the war.” 

This is an early example of government censorship of free speech. However, a dissenting voice of the time, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., initially was a supporter of this censorship. However, his change of heart spurred a free speech revolution. McDonald explains, “Originally, Holmes was on board with just affirming these convictions of these protesters going to jail for their speech. But he had an epiphany in the summer of 1919.”

The transformation of Holmes was a huge moment in protecting political dissent as part of free speech under the First Amendment. As McDonald asserts, “If there’s any cause that should be protected by the First Amendment, it’s political dissent.”

Modern Challenges to Free Speech

Since the rise of the internet and digital communication, we’ve begun to witness a second wave of challenges to free speech and government censorship. While social media has allowed the average citizen to become more of an active partner in political discourse, how the government has regulated digital thought is limiting opposing views and creating greater chasms in public discourse “echo chambers.”

McDonald observes, “It’s appalling the level of our civic discourse, our public debate, even by our purported leaders, are engaging in. They’re just shouting at each other and calling each other liars and questioning each other’s motives.” This is a reality that our audience is likely to encounter in their daily lives.

So, how is the government addressing the waves of mass misinformation and harmful content flowing across social media platforms while also respecting our rights to free speech? The truth is that it’s not. In fact, there are instances of it actively suppressing certain viewpoints by pressuring social media companies.

Government and Private Censorship

While both pose significant threats to free speech, it’s important to make clear the distinction between government and private censorship. McDonald clarifies, “Everyone knows that the government cannot coerce a private speaker to censor the speech of somebody else. That becomes government action subject to the First Amendment.” 

That said, the government does pressure private companies to make decisions that benefit its own interests, including making changes to algorithms that in fact limit what people see across the social media platforms.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the fine line between government regulation and private platform control. While legal challenges to the Supreme Court have attempted to deal with this issue, the outcomes are still murky. 

So, what are the solutions? Perhaps there needs to be an adoption of transparent and inclusive policies that allow for all viewpoints to flow across social media platforms. If people know that their viewpoint has equal access to others, they are more likely to trust that the government isn’t interfering with their free speech.

monument in washington dc

It’s All About Trust

If the American public even has the inkling that the government is participating in the suppression of free thought, the public also loses its faith in the democratic process. In fact, it’s already happening. Recent studies suggest that less than 25% of Americans believe that their free speech is actually protected.  

There is no doubt that digital and social media platforms will continue to shape public discourse, and that means we must find ways to balance free speech with responsibility. 

To continue this discussion, tune in to our latest podcast episode, which discusses these topics in depth.

Want to Learn More?

By continuing to discuss these issues, we are able to bring the parts of our political process that aren’t working to light. And these discussions are democracy in action. Continue the conversation by listening to our latest podcast episode with Professor Barry McDonald.

Join Our Movement for Positive Change

Engage with the Fourscore & Seven Project Video Series, available here and on our YouTube channel. By watching, liking, and subscribing, you’re taking a step towards fostering a democratic and transparent government and critically thinking about California’s social issues.

Support Our Vision — Donate Today

Your contribution to the New Majority Foundation furthers our mission of creating a well-informed and engaged community. Donate today and be part of the change. Together, we can make a transformative impact on California and beyond.