Constitution Day: freedom of speech and press from local to international levels
September 17, 2021
Free speech on a national level
The United States was founded on the ideals of democracy and freedom. The First Amendment written in 1787 clearly states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech.” The freedom of speech has further evolved as society has progressed and issues with expression, whether symbolic or straightforward, have become more transparent. In the 1989 Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson, the court augmented the freedom of speech by protecting flag-burning in political protest as a form of symbolic speech. A similar ruling in 1982 protected students’ rights to access books that may disagree with school officials’ political beliefs, and Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969 protected a student’s right to peacefully protest the Vietnam War as symbolic speech.
Since the First Amendment was established, protecting the freedom of speech and the press, the Supreme Court has expanded on the limitations of those rights in order to keep up with present issues, freedoms now extending to symbolic speech, offensive words relaying political messages and protesting, among other things.
However, freedom of speech is not unrestricted. To name a few, it does not protect libel or slander, perjury, copyright violation, distributing obscene materials, obscene speech at school events, burning draft cards as a form of protest, or printing school newspaper articles despite school board objections. That being said, the United States has fewer restrictions on freedom of speech and press than any other nation. Many nations recognize freedom of speech, though not as freely as in the United States. The most tolerant nations include the United Kingdom, Spain, and Poland, which recently created new laws and a “freedom of speech council” to delegitimize the censorship of social media content. The countries with the most censorship of speech include North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Turkmenistan, and Libya. The authoritarian leaders of these nations isolate themselves and regulate the flow of information in efforts to stay in power.
In spite of this, it is crucial to acknowledge the fact that American citizens are not always granted free speech in America, especially minorities. The myth of American exceptionalism has led many Americans to believe that their nation is intrinsically different from others, that their values, freedoms, political structures and historical development are unique in every sense, and that America “is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage.”
Believers of American exceptionalism refuse to acknowledge that the same Constitution that granted them fundamental rights did so at the expense of Black and Indigenous victims of colonization. ”
— Tanvi Kulkarni
The creation of the Constitution is time and time again described as a monumental moment in our history, one which endowed us with the fundamental rights and freedoms necessary to life. All high school students have learned about how America’s Constitution acted as an impetus for global citizens to fight for basic human rights and as a precedent for creating their own constitutions. The writers of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, are reveringly referred to as the “founding fathers” of our nation. However, believers of American exceptionalism refuse to acknowledge that the same Constitution that granted them fundamental rights did so at the expense of Black and Indigenous victims of colonization. These minority groups were not only left out of the Constitution but further ostracized with “state sanctioned terrorism” through Fugitive Slave laws and genocides against Indigenous groups allowing American settlers to annex their native lands.
Currently, minority groups are being oppressed as corporations and social media platforms such as Facebook hold the power to determine what constitutes “free speech” and “hate speech.” As our society faces increasing issues with social justice, racial discrimination and religious persecution, it grows more apparent that offensive or controversial messages from a woman, person of color, or other minority may be received with more backlash and hostility in discrimination of race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc. According to Peter Tatchell, a human rights activist known for his contributions to the LGBT+ community, it is unjust “to use no-platform and safe space policies to silence dissenters, including feminists, apostates, LGBTI campaigners, liberal Muslims, and critics of Islamist extremism.”
Although the silencing of minorities was largely unacknowledged in the past, recent social media backlash has shed light on these injustices, an example of how free speech and press have been used to help and advocate for minorities. According to the Pew Research Center, 23% of adults that use social media reported that something they saw online changed their beliefs about a social or political issue, and that number has only increased since the study was conducted. Some of those beliefs are related to police brutality, Black Lives Matter and political parties or figures.
The freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. It allows for society to progress and address issues, for schools and corporations to acknowledge fallacies in their practices, and for minorities to fight for change. Historically, freedom of speech has contributed to women’s suffrage, combating racism, civil rights and improved working conditions. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “If I lived in any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges. But… somewhere, I read of the freedom of speech… of the right to protest for rights.”
Free press on an international level
Conversely, countries such as Syria, which has an extremely oppressive regime, are very restricted in speech and press. Freedom of the World 2021 rated Syria a 1/100 in terms of political rights and civil liberties, compared to America’s 83/100. Although Syria’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press in name, it is heavily restricted in reality. Journalists who write negatively about the country may be detained, tortured, or even killed. Whatever is written has to be approved by the Interior Ministry, and even private media is influenced heavily by the political regime.
Four journalists were killed on the job in Syria in 2020, and 139 have been killed since 2011. Even college professors are not allowed to speak critically and have been imprisoned and killed in the past, meaning educational freedom is also highly restricted in Syria. The Syrian government indoctrinates its citizens through fear, limited speech, little access to information, and isolation from other nations, hindering their society’s progress and perpetuating an oppressive cycle.
Turkmenistan has a 2/100 rating, where the executive branch of government has absolute power without interference from the legislature. Freedom of the press is highly restricted, and independent journalists are abused, detained and prosecuted. According to Reporters Without Borders, who annually update the World Press Freedom Index based on a nation’s uncensored media and violence against journalists, just 12 countries globally have commendable freedom of the press. Turkmenistan has one of the worst ratings, higher than only Eritrea and North Korea. Journalists from RFE/RL, the only private media in Turkmenistan, are repeatedly the victims of intimidation, harassment, and death threats. Human rights organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have advocated for RFE/RL journalists who have died in Turkmenistan, saying that the journalists’ trials are a “mockery of justice.”
Free press in our community
The Challenges to Democracy class taught by social studies teacher Kristen Collins explored the personal sacrifices of journalists in censored nations and commemorated 24 journalists that were killed on the job in 2018 through a mural in the social studies department.
Collins works with a journalism organization based in Washington D.C. called the Pulitzer Center, which funds journalists to pursue underreported stories that then get published in recognized news sources such as PBS News and The New York Times. During that school year, Collins had invited a group of journalists from the Pulitzer Center to speak with her students, which inspired that year’s mural. The students were trying to convey the importance of domestic and international journalism and protecting press freedoms.
“I think it really struck home to my students, the importance of getting to those stories and paying attention to stories that don’t get told often,” Collins said.
Earlier in the class, the students had studied the suppression of the press in Turkey, as well as concerning press freedoms and condemnations of journalism in the United States.
[The underreported] stories are not on the front page or headlines. When you don’t have freedom of the press or journalists that are brave enough to access the parts of the world where things are happening, we don’t know about them.”
— Kristen Collins
“[The underreported] stories are not on the front page or headlines. It’s journalists that get to these stories and make the public aware of them, so we know it’s happening out in the world,” Collins said. “And when you don’t have freedom of the press or journalists that are brave enough to access the parts of the world where things are happening, then we don’t know about them. And we can’t help people if we don’t know there’s a problem there.”
Along with learning about the suppression of freedoms around the world, the school community exercises their freedom of speech and press on a daily basis. The yearbook team covered a wide range of topics last year, some of which were controversial or underrepresented. One page focused entirely on winter holidays, hoping to highlight diversity and represent different ethnicities in our community. A more controversial page covered the 2020 election on one side and the Capitol riots on the other. Senior and yearbook editor Lilly Francis reports that the yearbook team works to keep staff opinions out of the story in order to truly capture the student body’s perspectives.
“Our country is very polarized, so it was a big year to be covering [the election], especially with the election of the first female Vice President,” Francis said. “Some people in quotes and captions express their [political] opinions. It’s just one way we have freedom of the press here because [students] are able to speak freely and we’re able to cover these things without picking one side.”
Another example of the yearbook covering controversial topics was the activism page, which covered systemic racism and Black Lives Matter marches.
“I think it gives us a voice, which is really what we need because we’re the future leaders of this country. The fact that we’re so young and encouraged to express our voice and create opinion pieces to put our voice in the world is a good practice our school has instilled in us,” Francis said. “It also shows the community how student-led we are, the fact that we put out such a solid yearbook every year and the Pathfinder gets so many awards. It shows we’re not ignorant of things going on, and by putting more press out into the world, we’re continuing the cycle.”
Constitution Day cannot be truly and completely celebrated until every citizen of every country has the freedom of speech, press and every other fundamental freedom.”
— Tanvi Kulkarni
Francis says that the yearbook will continue to uphold freedom of the press by reporting the opinions and experiences of the student body without bias. Junior Elle Rotter, the Awards Coordinator for the Pathfinder, is similarly grateful for the freedoms granted to writers, such as entering other classrooms to take photos or conduct interviews.
“When our writing or actions are being censored, it creates a less reliable and accurate [environment] for journalism. Whether it’s calling out students or teachers, it’s a hard thing to do. Yes, students should be thinking of the words they’re writing before it gets published, but it’s an important liberty we have,” Rotter said.
Like the yearbook, the Pathfinder had the opportunity last year to cover controversial topics without censoring student opinions, including the 2020 election, the Capitol riots, structural racism and mental health illnesses.
“I’m really thankful that we have such a trusting administration and staff that allows us to pull students out of class and ask questions, and then write about it the way we feel it should be written. We have structures as a newspaper, but we are never told what we need to write or how a story needs to be written from our adviser,” Rotter said.
The freedoms offered to the yearbook and newspaper teams have allowed for its writers to be recognized beyond the West community. Other than receiving national recognition for the publication, the Pathfinder’s stories are viewed globally. In fact, some of the most viewed articles since 2017 have been those that have created controversy and debate, including articles that have criticized the actions of the Parkway Board of Education and the College Board.
As we recognize Constitution Day today in our social studies classes, we also need to recognize that while American citizens are granted basic First Amendment privileges, such as the ability to freely express opinions and access information that speaks critically of our government, many global citizens don’t have the same rights and freedoms. The same types of news articles we read with our morning coffee could have fatal consequences for a journalist in Syria or a citizen in any other censored nation.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
While it is important to celebrate Constitution Day and commemorate the document which granted Americans fundamental rights, it cannot be truly and completely celebrated until every citizen of every country has the freedom of speech, press and every other fundamental freedom.