Free speech: The cost of our words to truth and democracy
James-Christian B. Blockwood, a former career senior executive in the Federal Government, is Executive Vice President of the Partnership for Public Service, adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.
Speech may be free in the form of currency, yet the price we may pay in what follows our words can be steep. And some pay a heftier price than others—a cost often set by mainstream and social media. Everyday community dialogue, political campaigning and media commentary are becoming increasingly fiery, lacking decorum of years past. What caused this change?
My hypothesis: It may be a byproduct of impassioned individuals who feel trapped, silenced, misunderstood, or isolated—people who feel that speaking up with civility is futile. Similarly, those who didn’t have a platform before may now feel emboldened to ensure their voices, or those voices they believe they represent, are heard, regardless of the cost to them and sometimes even at the expense of others.
What does it mean to speak freely?
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has long struggled to precisely define protected speech, it was a common belief—until recent years—that individuals have the inalienable right to speak, whether through words or symbolism. There was a time in our country when people could actually speak more freely. This included offensive language that would displease our elders, words inherently religious or political, narrative used to express individuality, or choosing not to speak at all.
Now, while it seems some political leaders speak with impunity, others are indicted, ostracized or canceled. As a result, our broader civil society seems to be taking cues from leaders on the national stage. As issues become more consequential and touch core values or deeply held personal convictions—such as human life, social justice, and the functioning of our government—it becomes more understandable, though not excusable, that we lash out against one another using the harshest language and tone possible.
Perhaps this is why, in the past couple years, we had a Congress member who advocated for confrontation in the streets, a Senator threatening two U.S. Supreme Court justices over their votes, and a Governor and current presidential candidate using very graphic commentary threatening violence against public servants deemed to be part of a deep state.
How did we get here?
Online media platforms have overtaken traditional media as a means of expressing opinions and are now essential to everyday dialogue and pervasive in everyday life.
The dangers of online media are far reaching, with hazards that include particular subsets of individuals entrenching themselves into platforms more suitable and synchronous—groups that then may use these sites as stages to infringe upon the rights of those wishing to openly express themselves. This is exacerbated by readily available internet access, growing acceptance of a “cancel culture,” and features that allow for expression with relative anonymity.
Interestingly, the First Amendment protects online media platforms from government control —allowing them to govern, promote or remove hosted content based largely on corporately-established standards and interpretation. However, potential long-lasting, future harm on news distribution, individual integrity, and ultimately, an informed society, could be grave if those entrusted with this responsibility do not allow people to speak more freely.
In the last few years, during a heightened period of distrust due to a global pandemic and controversial presidential election, some online and social media platforms reduced the distribution of news deemed harmful or unvetted for accuracy and temporarily suspended accounts under the auspices of their own policies. Content was also prohibited or altogether removed allegedly due to misinformation or violation of policy seemingly without consistency or arbitration. There is also the issue of not knowing how much of this is the result of concerted attempts to foment discord and distrust of institutions by biased or malicious actors.
Who is to blame?
A great deal of responsibility is placed in the hands of a few, and we are almost singularly making them the arbiters of truth. Truth has always been what we believe, what others believe, what we can prove, and what others can prove. Moreover, truth has often been determined by those with the largest stage and greatest reach. This inevitably leads to a battle over who controls the information domain and the right to freely express oneself without unfair repercussions.
Billions of users—nearly half of the world’s population—engage on social media. As studies on psychological health regarding social media use continue, additional research on behavioral and social norms may provide interesting insight into how organizations and social movements are readily silencing some while allowing others unfettered exposure free of consequences.
This practice, which is the standard for some organizations and government regimes around the world, is unfortunately becoming customary here in the United States. An effective means to prevent the spread of this practice is for individuals to acknowledge the phenomenon exists, exercise personal accountability, and encourage dialogue around common standards for digital conduct.
We as individuals are responsible for exercising personal responsibility for the content we create, absorb, or share with others. We must carefully interpret what we hear and ensure individuals have equal access to and use of information platforms.
What are the potential consequences of inaction?
Arguments can be made that media (traditional and social) is culpable for eroding public trust in information sources. If we don’t take steps to both recalibrate what we say and, more importantly, protect our right to say it, the result may be continued restricted speech and waning trust, which could ultimately lead to the breakdown of civil society.
“Freedom of expression” is recognized as an international human right. While consequences for certain forms of advocacy, obscenity and inciting harm were never condoned, the penalties seem to have shifted from public admonishment to censorship.
What can we do about it?
Potential actions to improve civic discourse include: first, encouraging individuals to take more responsibility interpreting and creating content; second, encouraging nonpartisan, unbiased research on the effects of online and social media impacting human interaction and interconnectedness; thirdly, calling on media organizations to embrace free speech over restricting it; and lastly, insisting national leaders take more responsibility for their own speech and tone down their rhetoric.
We must be careful with the words we use (which is not to suggest self-censure) and ensure we are not hearing only what we want to hear. The latter can be very dangerous and detrimental to free speech and may prevent our ability to unite the huge fissure across our country, especially as it relates to politics, where it has become common practice for political parties to hold one member of another party responsible for the consequences of their speech but absolve others of their own party.
The cost of “free” speech is rising, and the price is surpassing suppression—moving dangerously close to oppression, especially for those holding unpopular opinions. Free speech, media and individual responsibility are intrinsically interconnected. We—as individuals and as a nation—must raise expectations and hold ourselves accountable as well as those with the greatest influence, whether when speaking themselves or helping to promote the speech of others.
Free speech, a cornerstone of our democracy, should be protected and respected—not weaponized or penalized. Without rigorous debate, we may lose trust and truth. Without those, we may lose our democracy. Let’s take responsibility for the consequences our words may have. Let’s hold each other accountable for what we say. Let’s lead by example to allow for open and healthy dialogue online and elsewhere. Above all else, words are sacred currency—let’s choose them wisely, before the cost of free speech rises to a price none of us can afford to pay.