Free Speech in the Digital Age?

The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America grants us the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression.  Freedom of expression meaning freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government. All of these things are pretty neat. In general I would say 10/10—would recommend freedom.



But like any fave—it’s problematic. As a student of, well, not-law, I’m probably not the best qualified person to provide an interpretation of the Constitution. But I am a student of English so I think I do possess a few interpreting skills and I am going to take a stab at it anyways. I am going to employ my freedom of speech to provide a criticism of free speech. God bless America.

What do you mean women can vote??
What do you mean women can vote??

I think the biggest problem with the first amendment is that it was passed in 1791. In addition to not being a student of law, I am also not a student of history, but I feel pretty confident in saying that our beloved founding fathers did not anticipate the advent of the digital age. I mean, James Madison didn’t even know what an electric light bulb was, I can’t even imagine how he would react to some of the technology we have today.

My issue with freedom of speech in the digital age lies specifically with the internet. Yes, you the internet. I could write odes to you and all the wonderful things you enable us to do. But sometimes you are a swirling cesspool of horrible, rude, offensive, and threatening comments. Take for example Lindy West’s story from a recent episode of This American Life.  In this episode, West talks about how she is attacked by strangers on the internet on a daily basis. Under the veil of anonymity, these strangers find new and unique ways to harass this woman regularly without consequences. One specific troll going far enough to make a parody twitter account of her recently deceased father and using it to harass her.

As an experiment I decided to click on some random YouTube videos and take a peak at the comment section. The first video I clicked on was a video directly on the homepage  titled “Sea Lion Joins Family on Santa Barbara Kayak-ORIGINAL VIDEO”. I thought that with a title so seemingly innocent as that, how could anyone possibly have anything rude to say? This was the top comment:

comment 1

Here are some other comments I found and screen-grabbed on random YouTube videos. Keep in mind I did not have to plumb the depths of the internet to find these. It took about 20 seconds of scrolling. Also, fair warning, these contain offensive language:

comment 3

comment 2

comment 4


The digital age enables us to say these things to each other, but do we really have the right to say these things? Should we be allowed to harass, threaten, and abuse other human beings online just because the constitution says its okay? The digital age is progressing much faster than our muddled-down bureaucratic government can and legislation cannot keep up with it. Anyone with an internet connection has the power to reach virtually anyone else in the world with an internet connection. Americans consider freedom of speech a hallmark of American society— we can say whatever we want to say and never worry about the consequences. There is something wrong with that.

I am not saying I think that these people should be banned from commenting on the internet, but I am saying there needs to be consequences for the things they say. Much like how shouting “fire” in a crowded theater has its consequences, so to should posting threats, crude insults, or anything to that effect online. The first amendment should not be an excuse to send rape threats to women online, or post racist comments, or toss around vulgar insults. We need to rethink our definition of freedom of speech in the digital age now that we have much more room to exercise that freedom.



2 Replies to “Free Speech in the Digital Age?”

  1. I think this is a REALLY important post making some spot-on points. I agree that the “free speech” concept in the constitution that we hold so dear is becoming archaic and ineffective on the internet. Hate speech =/= free speech, and I think we do a pretty good job in “real” life in enforcing that, but now online there seem to be next to no protection. Think yik yak. For a post to be taken down, it must be reported or receive enough down-votes. This is a crowd-sourcing approach to protecting people from harassment, and it seems to be the best option we have now. There’s also the concept of registering users, like on Reader’s Throeau, but youtube is too big of a site for that, and honestly I don’t like the idea of closing off open sites and making them private. Our current strategies aren’t really working, because as you point out, there are still horrible slurs all over the internet. How can we change this without gagging or patronizing people?

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