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Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Discern

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America prides itself on being the ‘Land of the Free’; however, as strange online activity and conspiracy mongering enter the public spotlight, the kind of freedom we so cherish must be decided. Are we entitled to a freedom to speak however we would like, or entitled to a freedom to be sheltered from harmful and false ways of thinking? As national security relies on governmental attention to threats of violence in the modern Age of Information, the question arises: are Americans free to believe whatever they want to believe? Should federal agents be responsible for shutting down dangerous ideologies online, or does the freedom of speech extend to even preposterous belief systems? The FBI’s labeling of conspiracy mongering as a domestic terror threat calls into question the extent to which citizens enjoy their First Amendment rights.

As Keller writes in his article, ‘Is a Conspiracy Theory Protected Speech?’, in the last fifty years “the outer limit of free speech in America has been defined by violence”. The famous case, Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), resulted in governmental authority being limited to silencing speech only if there is a ‘clear and present danger’ of both causing imminent lawless deeds and being likely to do so as well (Meyers-Bass, Chapter 3 slide 12). This ‘clear and present danger’ has recently been extended to referencing fringe conspiracy theories online, and, according to the FBI, “anti-government, identity-based, and fringe political conspiracy theories that very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places and organizations” are categorizable as domestic terror threats.

Specifically, the QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories are drawn into question. QAnon is a theory that claims an anonymous government official, Q, is leading a secret campaign to stop a group on nonpolitical elites from controlling the government, while Pizzagate accuses elite Democratic leaders of involvement in the sexual exploitation of children in a D.C. pizza parlor. Both theories instate President Trump as a savior figure, and contain an element of internet-fueled extremism. The FBI states that these kinds of theories often motivated high-profile violent acts, therefore qualifying them as defamation incidents. Although general public opinion seems to support that conspiracy theories are not necessarily protected by the First Amendment, it remains unclear to what extent the government can prohibit such speech. Even if the online messages present an intent to incite some kind of violence, the likelihood and probability are almost impossible to prove. The question remains: should these conspiracy theories be allowed to circulate online and propagate harmful and ‘untrue’ messages?

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According to four legal professors who focus on First Amendment issues, “false speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does and indeed, there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact” (Feuer 2018). This raises the question: who do we trust to define truth? According to scholar Deborah Appleman, “history is an impression of the past rather than a record” (Appleman 99). This in no way disqualifies facts as a legitimate source of truth, but rather calls into question the validity of any power structure that rushes to silence preposterous accusers. If these accusations are indeed preposterous, then the counter-evidence should prove so to any reasonable citizen. Defining ‘false speech’ and then criminalizing it grants governmental authorities the power to decide what is real and what is false, to choose who gets to criticize and who must be silenced. Truth should speak for itself. In accordance with the New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) case, which “prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to their official conduct unless they prove the statement was made with ‘actual malice’” (Meyers-Bass Chapter 4 slide 11). This offers protection to individuals who choose to criticize the government, which remains one of the core reasons the First Amendment exists at all. The ‘actual malice’ may appear in some of these theories; however, their online nature and their inconsistent results make the follow up imminence and likelihood impossible to predict.

Although outrageous theories and mindsets are understandably the cause of some unrest, the forces that would go into silencing those voices are more disturbing than the voices themselves. Possibly a more productive way to counter these conspiracy theories would be a more localized confrontation of news agencies that choose to give press to internet trolls and conspiracy theorists. According to Alan Feuer, the lack of media literacy in many mainstream reporters renders their coverage of online incidents misguided and harmful. If individual news organization choose to focus more on what is true than on what the minority of absurd individuals believe, the need to stamp out these theories would fade in the light of concrete facts and evidence. If these facts and evidences are not enough to reassure reasonable citizens of wrongdoing in the government, silencing perhaps the more ridiculous opinions would do nothing to reassure the public. On the contrary, it would assure the average citizen that to question authority can and will result in legal action.

If Americans are entitled to think for themselves, they should be trusted to consider ridiculous theories and concrete facts and come to their own conclusions. Although we must carefully consider where our First Amendment rights end and where violence begins, we must also call into question the act of silencing any facet of opposition. This silencing in itself is a form of violence.

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Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Discern. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/freedom-to-speak-freedom-to-discern/
“Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Discern.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/freedom-to-speak-freedom-to-discern/
Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Discern. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/freedom-to-speak-freedom-to-discern/> [Accessed 5 Dec. 2022].
Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Discern [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2022 Dec 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/freedom-to-speak-freedom-to-discern/
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