Freedom of Speech Online is Vital for Democracy

The many offensive, unpopular sentiments shared on the internet are protected speech, but can the private entities that comprise the internet decide what is posted? 

By: Amanda Scott, Feb 1, 2019

Freedom of speech is one of the most revered constitutional rights among Americans, and yet it also is one of the most complicated and misunderstood rights. One thing everyone can seem to agree about when it comes to this aspect of the First Amendment though, is that it is fundamental to democracy. 

Freedom of speech allows us to state any belief if it doesn’t incite violence and/or infringe on the rights of others.

Online, freedom of speech has always been a core value. The internet allows a greater percentage of the world’s population to share their ideas, opinions and beliefs than ever before – one of the biggest benefits of online dialogue. It’s important to note, especially with the type of speech we often encounter online, that the right to free speech protects speech even if it’s offensive or unpopular or something we may disagree with – and, that’s everywhere online! But, it’s still important that it’s there; it allows democracy to thrive because everyone is free to share and express themselves. 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his decision of United States v. Schwimmer in 1928, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

However, the internet is a space maintained by private enterprises who have the legal right to refuse service to anyone who doesn’t adhere to their policies.  

So, what does this mean for free speech online? 

“The entire internet is basically a patchwork of private spaces owned by different companies,” Natalie Linden of the Mozilla blog “Internet Citizen” writes. “When you build a website, create a blog post, make a comment, or update your social accounts, that content is touched by multiple companies – from hosts to registrars to service providers and browsers – on its way to the world’s eyeballs. Which gives those companies license to pull content whenever they see fit.”

Companies that excessively infringe on free speech online, however, are often viewed as biases and mouthpieces for certain causes rather than open communities.  These tactics might alienate certain users and lead to the site’s dialogue monopolized by certain viewpoints or individuals.  A question that Publishers need to ask themselves are whether these results align with the goals they originally envisioned.

It has been proven repeatedly throughout history that, both online and offline, free speech is a good thing for citizens and for users and allows for productive discussions and brainstorming to occur.  The critical piece missing from the online approach is the ability for individuals to continue to engage with a community that includes individuals whose speech they disagree with while not having all of their interactions revolve around the  community’s differences in opinion.