Negative Side-Effects of Free Speech

Since the beginning of our country, one of our founding principles has been the right to express yourself through speech, media, or any other means of communication. For a long time those that founded our country were under the control of the British, and the lack of freedom to do and say what was on your mind was very constrained. With the American Revolution, we fought for the right to convey our beliefs without fear of another governing force taking action on you. This right has obviously lasted for quite some time in our country, and as of lately it has been under examination by lawmakers and common citizens alike. Since the introduction of the internet and more specifically social media to our society, we have been granted the right to share whatever is on our minds whenever we please at the click of a button, and that may prove to be more harmful than beneficial. With the rate of hate crimes rising every year and the number of threatening and hateful comments that have been put out on the internet to be seen by anyone and take an unknown toll on a number of people. With the number one right granted to us over 200 years ago under close examination, we must ask ourselves what we can do to potentially curtail the negative side-effects of free speech paired with social media, as well as whether limiting this right is unconstitutional or not.

To have a discussion on whether or not free speech is something that should be restrained, it is important to understand the broad history of freedom of speech not only in America, but in the world. The term “freedom of speech” actually originated in Greece with the greek word “parrhesia” which means “free speech” or “to speak candidly”, and it quickly became a very prominent part of Athenian democracy. Scholars, citizens, philosophers and more were all free to speak with one another on everyday matters, such as politics, religion, and even government criticisms in certain settings. In America, it was introduced in December of 1791 as the first of the ten original amendments, allowing citizens the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. It never actually gave a hard definition for what falls under free speech, and that is what has led to the extensive discussion that has lasted for decades amongst citizens. Although this right is a very powerful one that is difficult to dispute, there have been many controversies surrounding what falls within the boundaries of free speech in the last couple centuries. Although freedom of speech gives you the power to share your opinions, criminal controversy and criminal anarchy laws are a kind of loophole that the government may use to suppress freedom fighters, abolitionists, and anyone else that may be protected under the First Amendment sharing information that our government may deem “harmful”. One example of how these laws can be used to censor can be seen in the case of labor leader Eugene Debs who got 10 years in prison for what he said at a rally of peaceful workers under the Espionage Act. Another case involves feminist Margaret Sanger for giving a lecture on birth control, and later opening the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. She was arrested just over a week after opening with many other arrests later in her life due to her feminist agenda, all charges being things that would not make her arrest unconstitutional. In addition to taking action against those seen as potential public threats, the government also banned things like trade union meetings, any protests that might be considered to have radical beliefs, those who protested America joining the first world war, and many other exhibits of censorship that ignores that first amendment. All of these cases should have been considered unconstitutional at the time, but any policy as subjective as the first amendment will create debates like these and that is just a part of how civil discourse works. As we come across new problems that face our society, it is our job to work together towards solutions that will ultimately better the way we live and conduct ourselves as a nation. Obviously these exhibits of unconstitutional censorship have slowed down since the early 20th century, but the debate has changed into something arguably even more contentious.

The issue of what is to be done about the growing concern of what is protected by our freedom of speech rights is a major debate. Although there are clearly things that aren’t protected under the first amendment, such as plagiarism and true threats (any threat that can be prosecuted under the law), things like hate speech are not actually regulated by the government at all, and this is where the problem begins. Some will argue that we should not allow the government to decide what is hate speech because it is unconstitutional and we should not be censored, while others argue that hate speech is harmful and should be outlawed. There are many problems with both sides to these arguments, and it is up to us to decide how to go about finding the medium between the two. First off, the process of actually changing an amendment is a very long and tedious process. Two thirds of both houses of Congress must first pass a proposed amendment, followed by three fourths of the state legislatures. In an article by Liz Button, a poll conducted by YouGov revealed “that 40 percent of Americans think government should prevent people from engaging in “hate speech.” This number has gone up dramatically since Trump has become president, as many think that he often abuses his power. Even if the amendment were to be changed, there will undoubtedly still be people who misuse things like social media or other means of communicating with others, but there will be a lot more regulation and hopefully that will diminish the amount of hate speech that is being put out there on a daily basis. Through passing a new amendment prohibiting hate speech, those that are constant victims will also feel much safer especially in a time where they may feel outed because of their race, sexual orientation, etc. However, outlawing hate speech doesn’t stop people from having these ideas, and making it illegal doesn’t ensure that those who have those ideas won’t take action on them. As stated before, we as a society have to work towards finding the in-between, no matter how difficult it may be.

The primary reason that free speech has become a hot topic in the last couple decades is due to the growing platform of social media. As previously mentioned, the ability to communicate instantly with others and put your thoughts out into a place where the whole world can see it has yielded far more benefits than most people realize, making collaboration with others easier than most could’ve ever imagined. However, instant communication and social media platforms create a new environment for people to share things that are harmful or hurtful to others. Freedom of speech really comes down to disallowing the government to censor the things you say, but the ideology that was originally associated with free speech has become very hazy in the last decade. Hunter Quon, a professor at Oregon State University, shared his thoughts in an article titled “Here are the Issues with the First Amendment”, followed by “just because you are free to say it, does not mean you should”. Personally I don’t think it could’ve been said any better because this takes the original meaning of free speech and uses it to make a very strong point about how we conduct ourselves in our modern society. The article discusses a few ways in which he believes the meaning of free speech has been changed by the way people utilize it on social media. He agrees that freedom of speech is beneficial in that it allows us to discuss civil discourse in a productive manner, but goes into how many abuse this power and believe that no matter what they say it is protected by free speech. This is not incorrect, but it strays away from the original purpose of free speech. Referring back to its original Greek meaning, speaking in a candid manner is a key aspect of productive discussion, and through participating in hateful speech that often includes common fallacies and hurtful opinions, we lose sight of why we implemented this right in the first place. Yes, free speech allows you to share your beliefs no matter how moral or insensitive they may be, but the purpose is lost when we speak hatefully or deceitfully about others. Once we start to utilize free speech in the way it was intended to be used, I believe that we as a society will be much more progressive in that we will be able to work through problems in a much more productive manner, as well as ultimately feel more united as a country.

It is difficult for a decent chunk of the American population to understand why things like hate speech aren’t “empty words” as many describe it, and that is due to many not identifying with “risk groups” such as African-Americans, members of the LGBTQ community, and immigrants. These people are more often than not the subjects of a majority of the hate speech that occurs on social media platforms today, and it is important to discuss the problems that these groups experience because of this. Taking a look at the aftermath of Trump being elected, there were a number of cities that reported spikes in vandalism against civil liberties groups, as well as “bias crimes”(also known as hate crimes) immediately following the election. New York City, for example, reported a 115% spike in the aforementioned bias crimes, an astounding number that begs to be accredited to the election of that tyrant. In addition to a rise in crimes and violence against theses risk groups, psychological and societal harm must be considered as well. Researchers everywhere have been examining the effects of hate speech on a given individual, and the findings are stacked against hate speech being extremely harmful both physically and emotionally. Not only has “neurological and sociological research has proven that hate speech leads to ‘a dehumanizing effect’ which lessens our empathy for other people.” (Dr. Naomi Elster), but studies have actually proven that emotional pain triggers neurotransmitters that cause one to experience the same pain as if it were physical, and it doesn’t even have to be said directly to that individual to affect them. When people attack these risk groups with hate speech, it creates a collective identity that these groups are lower on the pedestal than what is considered the norm. Through this, groups can end up feeling powerless and afraid of being who they truly are, and that is very damaging to our society. Hate speech, in and of itself, has the ability to tear a nation into pieces, and that is why it should be curtailed.

To conclude, free speech has been around for nearly two thousand years, a necessary part of society and the driver for productive civil discourse. Without it, we as a civilization would not have grown the way we have, and innovation would be lacking. With the power of social media and the internet, we have been able to use free speech to our advantage, bringing the alike together and creating a platform for people to discuss problems and work towards solutions that will better our nation. However, it is very easy to lose sight of the true meaning of free speech, and it is more important now than ever that we conduct ourselves with a level of courtesy and respect for others so that we may be productive as a society. Through the appropriate usage of free speech, we will be more united as a whole and we can continue to progress towards equality and peace amongst everyone, regardless of who they are.

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