As we’ve been reminded in the past several weeks, freedom of speech – accompanied by freedom of expression and religion and peaceful assembly – are pretty important tenets in the American ideal. Fortunately, we live in a country where we are afforded the ability freely to speak our minds, barring any implied threat of violence or evocation of “clear and present danger” to the public.
It’s interesting that much of the parameters of free speech create a paradox: consider that almost every sort of political speech is deemed acceptable, even if it lacks an elemental standard of proof, may be deemed “offensive” to a majority of recipients, and even falls within the confines of “hate speech.” This is a difficult matter to me, but, ultimately, I am not unlike the ACLU: I think it’s important to protect free speech without partisanship. As British writer Evelyn Hall paraphrased the beliefs of Voltaire in the biography she wrote about him titled “The Life of Voltaire”: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It’s also interesting that what we as consumers may not deem acceptable free speech may forge a paradox with what we as producers deem to be free speech. I often note that critics who tend to oppose “protest,” based on an aim that may not align with their beliefs will, on the other hand, often be supportive of “protests” that do neatly square with their beliefs. For instance, a number of critics among the populace were quite vocal in their opposition to former NFL quarterback-turned-political-activist Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality. As a result, a number of consumers swore off of NFL football programming in their own silent protest.
However, it is interesting to note that of late, some of the opposition to the aforementioned peaceful protest actually supported weaponized protestors in military-style gear and sporting long guns who stormed the Michigan Capitol, alleging that their rights had been infringed upon by the government’s stay-at-home orders in the midst of the pandemic. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no particular allegiance to Kaepernick, as I couldn’t care less about NFL football. However, I value his right to protest as much as the right-wing group Michigan United for Liberty – although I would prefer that all protests be done without even the hint of violence, urging for nonviolent resistance, as Dr. Martin Luther King might have phrased it. Again, as long as a protest is peaceful, we all, as citizens of representative democracy, should follow Voltaire’s above mantra.
Also of interest in our contemporary world of digital citizenry – with some individuals better equipped than others, juxtaposed against the notion of free speech, is the number of people who make false or “hateful” social media posts, have those posts removed by the censors and then complain about their rights being taken away. Each week I see certain Facebook friends complain about being thrust in “Facebook jail,” which means that they have posted a meme or an opinion that Facebook has deemed unacceptable under its parameters and has then removed, limiting that user’s access to the medium for a specified period of time.
In fact, one of my friends, a retired teacher, shared this week a meme that read as follows: “Freedom of SPEECH is a GOOD thing...given to us by God. Facebook censors it. Pray for their enlightenment.” Knowing that this person had been an educator, I was a bit shocked by the lack of savvy. It is crucial to remember that social media companies are private entities, and the First Amendment, which protects citizens from government censorship, doesn’t apply to privately-owned entities. Thus, such media may censor what they like. I am sure there are probably some specifications on what is allowed and what isn’t in the novel-length legal agreement required when users sign up for Facebook. I don’t recall, as I’ve had a Facebook account since 2005.
As an English instructor, preparing my students for a world inundated by digital media, I teach them to fact-check and verify their sources – and to keep in mind that it’s awful easy to spew invective behind the seeming isolation of social media, although when we have the inclination to do so, we should envision that doing so is no different than if we went down to the public square, stood in front of a microphone, and audibly shared the same information. Would we still do it? Yes, perhaps so, for some of us. Perhaps not for others, after removing the immediacy and adding a little more judgment. However, we would still have the right to do so as citizens of a government that affords the right of free speech, no matter how enlightening or nurturing, or, alternately, how offensive it may be.