Is freedom of speech really under attack?
Many Americans today worry that the one of the protections granted by the first amendment, freedom of speech, is under attack by certain institutions. Those who believe that freedom of speech is under attack often point to student protests and revoked invitations for controversial speakers on college campuses. However, figuring out whether the first amendment is actually threatened today is more complicated than just looking at a few trending stories.
For one thing, only the U.S. government is in charge of enforcing and protecting the first amendment. Legally, freedom of speech is not a right that private institutions or individuals need to uphold. Often, critics who complain that first amendment rights are under threat point to social media restrictions on controversial figures. This was the case with conservative commentator Milo Yiannopolis, who struggles to find a social media platform he has not been banned from. However, there is no freedom of speech on the internet at large, and social media websites have the right to enforce their own speech policies.
Others might question why employers or institutions have the right to restrict the actions of their staff. One famous example is the Virginia cyclist who was fired from her job after a picture began circulating of her raising her middle finger at the president. However, individual employers generally have the right to fire employees who they feel represent their company poorly.
Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether Americans can accept that others have a right to free speech even if that speech violates their political preferences. Whose speech is being restricted, and is there a growing intolerance in the country?
Freedom of Speech on College Campuses
In March 2019, President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking federal agencies to direct funding toward figuring out how to protect free speech on college campuses. He specifically said he wanted to address how to prevent power structures from favoring “rigid, far-left ideology.”
He may have been motivated by media coverage of controversial figures who were invited to speak at college campuses only to be uninvited after student protests. These figures include Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann coulter. However, is the far left truly in control of the right to free speech on college campuses?
According to a Georgetown University data analysis from 2018, there is little evidence to indicate that conservative opinions have been banned from college campuses. The report found that there were only a handful of disinvitations involving the same handful of speakers.
However, the report also found that there were also numerous, less well-reported incidences of left-leaning scholars being silenced, disinvited or even fired from college campuses for expressing their opinions. In the vast majority of cases, though, colleges were comfortably able to host both conservative and liberal speakers without a major incident.
In some cases, critics may have felt that the right to free speech was being challenged because of student protests against controversial speakers. However, part of the first amendment protects the right to assemble, and free speech on college campuses also includes the right to protest.
Freedom of Speech in the Country Overall
The subject of freedom of speech extends well beyond college campuses. For instance, in September 2017 an anonymous biker was photographed raising her middle finger to a passing presidential motorcade. The photograph began to circulate widely around the internet. Eventually, the cyclist revealed that she was the one in the photograph and her company fired her for making the photo her profile picture on social media.
Briskman filed a lawsuit against her company for unlawful termination, but it was thrown out in court. Companies have the right to fire employees for violating social media policy, even if it relates to political opinions. The freedom of speech amendment does not protect against companies taking actions, particularly in at-will employment states like Virginia, where she worked and resided.
Another national conversation about the right to free speech has taken place around the National Football League (NFL). Football player Colin Kaepernick began sitting, and then kneeling, during the national anthem at football games to protest police violence against Black Americans.
This became a flashpoint for first amendment rights in the United States, with everyone from fellow players to team owners to fans and even the president weighing in. President Trump urged the NFL to fire Kaepernick and any football player who followed suit. However, the NFL took a neutral stance on the subject, and many team owners came out in support of him. Kaepernick’s civil rights protest continued, and additional players began joining him.
Who can threaten freedom of speech?
Although commentators often cite freedom of expression examples on the internet or in institutions, the only institution truly responsible for enforcing and protecting the first amendment is the U.S. government. In many cases, the government may be most responsible for suppressing or protecting citizens’ right to express their beliefs freely and openly.
Trump’s tweet demanding that the NFL fire employees who sit for the anthem might be seen as an example of free speech violation, but the reality was that his tweet was just that — a tweet, not an executive order. Therefore, rather than an example of oppressing citizens, the tweet could be seen as more free speech from the president. Although many typically expect restraint and uninvolvement from a president, the commander-in-chief also retains the right to free speech.
More relevant are conversations regarding whistleblower protections from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for employees working within the government. Despite the fact that the Dodd-Frank Act protects those who publish controversial information hidden by the government, many fear that the SEC’s whistleblower protections may be neglected or ignored by the federal administration.
Both the Trump administration and the previous Obama administration have been criticized for secretly or openly targeting whistleblowers within their staff. When it comes to the first amendment and freedom of speech, it seems we are selective about what we focus on and what we see as a violation.