Bill of Rights: Amendment I
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
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Here in the United States, we have the right to the freedom of speech. We live in a nation where our government cannot censor what we want to say or prohibit the free exercise of what we want to do with our lives. We have protected this right vehemently, even as it has been challenged by the accessibility and immediacy of the Internet and social media. This core liberty, that many of us in the US take senselessly for granted, is not guaranteed to others around the globe.
Unfortunately, countries such as China, Iran, and North Korea, among others, do not afford this basic right of freedom to their citizens– especially when it comes to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The immediate and far reaching potential of these mediums provoke fear within the authoritative administrators of these nations as they believe these viral avenues encourage rebellious unrest against their government and political philosophies.
Mother Jones Magazine’s online blog recently published an article on countries around the world that block and censor social media sites. This past March, the Turkish government– a self-proclaimed democracy– jumped on the censorship bandwagon and blocked its residents’ access to Twitter and YouTube, anxious and fearing the spread of confidential government wiretap recordings. According to Mother Jones reporter Dana Liebelson, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan banned Twitter in response to the site refusing to take down an account that charged a former Turkish minister of corruption. A YouTube block was also initiated after a viral video surfaced of government officials discussing the possibility of declaring war against Syria.
The right of free speech is the heart of democratic values, and ultimately a true democracy cannot exist, or rather “beat,” without the fundamental building block of free expression. Freedom of Speech permitted Socretes to lecture from a rock in front of the Parthenon in ancient Greece; Thomas Paine to rebel and fight for freedom against the British; as well as Martin Luther King Jr. to gather millions on the Mall in Washington, encouraging us to seek racial equality. The Internet also allows for this free speech to be critiqued: like Miley Cyrus’ “twerking” performance or Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.
The right of free speech does not necessarily mean the right of “comfortable speech”– the right to say things most will agree with. Yet rather it involves the right to say things that are uncomfortable for many to hear. It is only when a democratic society fights to preserve the right of “uncomfortable speech” that we can indeed claim to live in a free democratic society.
Social media will eternally challenge this right due to its immediacy and ability to reach millions instantaneously, yet restricting its use and content is no different than limiting what could have been said on radio or television a mere generation ago. Regulating access to social media may make us, or particularly foreign governments, “more comfortable,” but let’s never confuse it with a true democracy, which can only thrive by yielding disagreeable rhetoric to ‘bloom’… even when it is difficult to hear, much like, for all you Joyce fans out there, the legendary Leopold Bloom himself.