Free speech is one of the cornerstones of the American legal system, encoded as a stipulated right in the very First Amendment to the Constitution that governs this nation. Despite the importance of it, it’s also a widely misunderstood right for many citizens.
The legal intention of the right is to provide freedom of the press, freedom of protest against the government, and freedom of religious worship and practice. However, many commonly assume that free speech only means they can say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want. This is not true, given that in most locations, it is illegal to yell “fire” in a movie theater as to not create dangerous stampedes.
While free speech has been subject to quite a few court cases over the last two-plus centuries, one would think that its original boundaries would have been clearly established by now. In many situations, it has and is a mature and well-developed doctrine. However, the rise of the Internet and social media has brought new conversations and complications.
Courts have upheld at times that hate speech is protected as free speech, preserving the rights of white supremacist organizations and fringe religious groups to gather and march in public. However, is such speech okay on Facebook or Twitter? Some users feel like they have freedom of expression rights here, but an argument can also be made that the companies running these platforms have their right to determine what content is appropriate and acceptable or not.
Further complicating things is the rise of fake news, which has been around a while, but became a point of interest during the 2016 presidential election. Do users have free speech rights to peddle stories known to be false? As with all other chapters in the story of the First Amendment, it will take years and many court decisions to interpret the social media and Internet boundaries.