The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The clause forbidding Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” essentially means we can say and print what we want, to include making negative comments about the government. Prior to our Bill of Rights, this concept was unheard of.
In the 1780’s, most states had provisions protecting free speech, but that right ended when it came to the government. While citizens could criticize each other, early American law held that comments injurious to the state were illegal.
Now with a government created by and answerable to the people, it seemed wrong that the people could not criticize what they had created. Being punished by the government for objecting to its views, would imply the government was still the master and the people its servant.
Despite new free speech guarantees, President Adams signed the Sedition Act into law in 1798. This legislation punished those openly critical of his administration, especially the new Democratic-Republican party founded by Thomas Jefferson.
One of the first people charged under this legislation was Benjamin Bache, editor of the Aurora, the newspaper of Jefferson’s party. He was charged with accusing President Adams of having monarchical ambitions, and describing him as “blind, bald, crippled, toothless”. By today’s standards, pretty mild stuff.
This bill proved highly unpopular and was one of the key issues in the election of 1800, which saw Jefferson defeat Adams effectively ending the power of the Federalists. With his coming into the White House, Jefferson allowed the Sedition Act to expire in 1801.
Interestingly, the latest assault on free speech is coming from the private sector, not the government. Facebook, Google, and Twitter, who have somewhat of a monopoly on internet content, have declared certain statements “offensive” and not allowable on their sites.
Since the Constitution only restricts the government from infringing on free speech, one could argue these private companies are within their rights to operate as they choose, to include controlling speech on their platforms.
However, a key distinction is that the internet is a public forum, not a private domain. While not owned by the government, it is public space nonetheless and intended for the enjoyment and benefit of everyone. It seems reasonable for companies operating in this common space to be subject to governmental oversight.
Organizations that use other public spaces like the Post Office or city parks must adhere to their requirements. Given the importance of the internet to public discourse, should not the internet be subject to guidelines as well?
Consider for a moment what America would look like if a small elite group controlled our main public discourse venue, the internet, without any restrictions. America essentially would have a controlled press like Russia and China.
Think about policy debates over topics like climate change and immigration. Without unfettered access to the internet’s public spaces, a few entities could control the discussion and refuse to run articles explaining both sides. Does anyone really think that is healthy for a democracy?
Today these powerful few may support your point of view, but tomorrow that could change. In this case, our freedom of speech must be protected not from the government, but rather by the government.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does it matter to us today that Congress can make no laws abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press? Nothing is more essential to a free society than the freedom of speech and of the press. Imagine living in a country like Russia or China in which you are jailed or worse for stating your point of view.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you should cherish the right for both you and those opposed to your point of view to openly state their opinions on all matters and in all public spaces. We must guard our rights jealously or risk losing them.