Free speech is one of the cornerstones of American Democracy. However, what are the boundaries of free speech? In the current political milieu, the protection of free speech appears to have an amorphous and wide expanse when it comes to sexist, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic rants on many social media platforms and college campuses. The recent Knight Foundation Survey polled high schoolers' view on the First Amendment; it found that “Boys and white students are less inclined than girls and students of color to agree with the statement: The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” Who’s protected by free speech calls into question what does the First Amendment to the Constitution mean when it states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech”.
On November 20, Cambridge Community Television(CCTV) held a panel discussion tackling the question titled “Civil Discussion in an Uncivilized World: Are there limits to the First Amendment?” Ceasar L. McDowell, Professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT, and Jim Braude of WGBH’s “Greater Boston” and “Boston Public Radio” were the panelists.
Susan Fleischmann, Executive Director of CCTV, who was once a First Amendment absolutist, wanted a discussion on the topic because, under the present administration, hate speech appears to protect the offenders.
“For over thirty years, CCTV has proudly served as a First Amendment forum from our community, and I have defended speech that has been personally very challenging. However, the needle has dramatically moved,” stated Fleischmann.
Both McDowell and Braude agreed that today, no one would dispute that there has been a steady decline in public civil discourse. People who traffic in hate speech appear to have boundless ways of disseminating their vitriol. When challenged, they push back at their opponents contesting First Amendment protection of free speech.
How does society democratize voices in the public sphere to create a level playing field, where no voice is drowned out by louder ones due to social capital, political influence, money or bullying?
McDowell shared with the audience that he struggles with “where are the limits of what we can say to each other, particular with technology.” Many, like McDowell, feel that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are not doing enough to counter hate and violent speech. McDowell acknowledges that people have the right to express their views and need venues to do so, but he wants to know what it means to give voice in public spaces. In other words, is one's right to free speech limited by where you are, what you say, and how you say it?
For example, McDowell shared a recent incident he experienced on a crowded train from Harvard Square to Kendall Square. Two white guys on the Red Line were deliberately talking loud, spewing sexist and xenophobic epithets. McDowell wondered if the guys had a right to speak like that on a train “where people didn’t choose to be in that space for that sort of speech.” The incident highlighted for McDowell the need for civil conversations in public spaces that uphold a sense of responsibility to each other and the greater society. However, in today’s divisive climate, “We are a right space society,” McDowell told the audience (meaning protected by the First Amendment), “and not a responsibility space society.”
Braude advised that before you query how people use their speech in the public sphere, you have to ask, ”how does everyone get the right to speak”? In other words, how does society democratize voices in the public sphere to create a level playing field, where no voice is drowned out by louder ones due to social capital, political influence, money or bullying.
Social media, on the one hand, have democratized voices, especially marginalized voices in society due to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and political affiliations, to name a few. On the other hand, social media have created a neo-tribalism where people connect only with those of similar views. The adverse outcomes have been the dissemination of hateful language, deliberate misinformation, and a deepening disconnection from one another and society - all protected by anonymity.
Both panelists are proponents of anti-anonymity on social media. It’s a controversial and censored stance because opponents contest anti-anonymity limits free speech, whereas proponents argue it enforces a greater responsibility to own your words. Anonymous online platforms that spew hatred dehumanizes both the victims and offenders. The offender interacts with its target in a disembodied way with the shield of anonymity, highlighting the deep disconnect with humanity. The victim is “otherized” with no recourse to clap back.
The lack of a civic education contributes in part to the breakdown of our body politic. McDowell suggested an antidote to the micro-aggressions we see on social media are micro-inclusions where institutions and community spaces, like CCTV, have people come together and talk about their rights and duties of citizenship.
In thanking the panelists and audience, Fleischmann stated: “I think this conversation illustrated the dangers of backing down from a principled support of free speech, as well as the need for us to all take responsibility, not only for ourselves as speakers, but as witnesses who cannot sit idly by.”
I agree with Fleischmann.
As someone who intersects multiple identities and is the target of various forms of anonymous hate speech, it’s exhausting to bear the weight of a bigot’s tongue solely.
Rev. Irene Monroe