Updated: Jan 21, 2021
Published January 19, 2021
I believe that some of the most precious human considerations towards each other can be found in the United States Constitution. Our founding fathers spent well over a decade finding the right words to embody the timeless promise of the Declaration of Independence: that we have basic, persistent, and undeniable rights, among them being "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Constitution has been, and will always be, the core of our modern democracy. The framework openly puts forth a government with specific separations of power across three federal branches and a bicameral legislative body to ensure various opinions on legal and social matters. To ensure the liberties provided for the people, the Founders further toiled for several years in advancing specific Amendments, otherwise known as the Bill of Rights, which specified protections beyond the government's role.
The written context of the 1st Amendment, which is generally described as our freedom of speech, is quite broad and extends well beyond what we say and what we write. It is essentially a freedom of expression, considerably written to protect religious beliefs and practices in our society. Additionally, it allows for "the right of the people to peaceably assemble" before their government and be heard. It also establishes protections for the media.
There are several dangerous misconceptions within our society surrounding the purview of the 1st Amendment. What does the 1st Amendment actually allow, and from whom does it protect us?
Provided Rights - The 1st Amendment doesn't provide us the platform to say anything that we want without fear of consequences or repercussions. It also doesn't provide the absolute right to have our opinions heard, equally or at all. It certainly wasn't designed for assembly to riot and loot, nor for threatening protests against organizations or private citizens. However, it does give us all the right to have and hold our opinions and beliefs, those tenets that so uniquely define us, far away from group-think and the platitudes of the self-righteous and the ignorant.
Protections From - The 1st Amendment protects us purely from government retribution. It doesn't protect us from slanderous, libelous, nor inciteful acts of expression that create damages to persons and property, whether they be public or private.
'Fake News' is not a new phenomenon; history books often refer to forms of it as Yellow Journalism, and wars abroad resulting in foreign occupations have been credited to it, but if only for the profits of competing media companies. Actually, US history dating back to our nation's birth has been riddled with examples where the 1st Amendment has been put to the test and downright abused by 'Fake News.' Recently, the Information Age's dawning and global internet access have accelerated certain forms of this type of abuse while checking other forms. The anonymity provided by some social platforms and 'unconfirmed sources' gives a voice to cowards in our society who hide in the shadows, afraid of confrontation and accountability. To be sure, 'Fake news,' nor any form of published dis-information, is not and should not be protected by the 1st Amendment.
'Hate Speech' is also not new but has always found its way by the outrageous and inciteful opinions of the few being represented as facts for the many. The US Supreme Court, gatekeepers of the Constitution, continue to struggle with this concept to this very day. Unfortunately, this form of expression has no prejudice for face nor form as it makes its home through in a time-honored combination of ignorance and intolerance.
The most challenging form of coercive communication, in our citizenry and our media outlets, takes shape in how we form and communicate our opinions. Simply put, we need to better differentiate opinions that we create of our own accord and those that we hear from media outlets from irrefutable facts. We are all victimized by confirmation bias. Twenty-four-hour news channels and streaming news services compete for audiences, and they compile ratings-rich-stories that both stoke-and-stroke their bases. Add in the ever-present social media platforms that extend their coverage like never before, and we have the perfect recipe for a tempest in a teapot. And you may ask what is that tempest in the teapot: our collective needs to measure and justify opinions as facts.
When we step back and look at news coverage aired on national broadcast and cable television and view the content objectively, it is evident that the news programs have devolved into competing opinion factories; in other words, while seeking information in the form of news segments, we are being bombarded by the biased opinions of the networks and their narratives. We have been, and continue to be, programmed by the media sources of our choice. Insidiously and persistently, we are exposed to news that materially lacks the dispassionate facts from which we should draw our own perspectives and conclusions. Look at which programs produce the highest ratings on the top programs on conservative and liberal cable news stations. We are likely loyal to our television news sources, and sadly our commitment to these outlets persists much longer than many of our marriages.
Clearly, our own opinions should be protected by the 1st Amendment, but where do we draw the line. As noted, religious beliefs were at the center of these rights when they were put into action. Our religious views are among the most powerful opinions we own, especially when held against people of other religions. Why is it that US citizens have generally demonstrated the appropriate tolerances and respect for religious differences, while at the same point in our history, we have zero tolerance for contrary political views? It's puzzling.
So in a world with 'Fake News,' 'Hate Speech,' and disinformation campaigns running amok, how do we as a society control the bad actors under the same legal constructs that protect our own messages; how to fight inciteful and damaging expressions while protecting our own principles. I suggest that it is a very slippery slope, indeed.
Censorship is not illegal, in the views of the 1st Amendment, unless that censorship comes at the government's hand. Yes, there have been recent executive orders that make censorship by online media outlets seemingly illegal. Still, those executive orders are flimsy and inadequate in the precedent cases of the Supreme Court.
I think censorship is just a cop-out, in my opinion (see what I just did there).
Censorship is the easy way to dismiss the opinions of others and to disinfect contrary messages. Censorship in any allowable form is a fast path to groupthink and a wholly intolerant politburo. Most importantly to me, while being legal, censorship creates a less perfect union.
Let the voices be heard in the way the Founders wanted them to be heard. Let the 1st Amendment forever continue to preserve our freedoms of expression.
But in letting the voices be heard, we must fight sources of 'Fake News.' Please don't allow them to operate without consequences. Hit them where it hurts. Don't continue to be an audience of outlets that fuel disinformation.
We must also legally fight all forms of 'Hate Speech' in open and public discourse. Expose their bigotries, ignorances, and intolerances in an open forum that removes the information vacuum of the conspiracy theorists. Let their ridiculous words be heard.
Most importantly, we need to take ownership of our opinions, learn to listen to others' opinions, and work back towards the middle. Compromise and tolerance need to lead our country into the imminent future. Take the time to listen to and understand the other half of the country that doesn't share your points of view.
Our democracy is resilient, and we know that we are better when we recognize and respect our differences and use them to create a more tolerant nation.