The Official Student News Site of Parkway West High

Free speech on a national level

September 17, 2021

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.”

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