American free speech is entering uncharted territory

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In China, the police are censoring criticism of the country’s draconian policy against Covid-19.

In Russia, calling the country’s invasion of Ukraine a war is a crime.

These authoritarian realities seem a far cry from the Wild West of American free speech, where people are protected under the law to criticize and smear public figures.

Maybe not under Twitter’s content policy.

Self-proclaimed ‘free speech absolutist’ Elon Musk’s quest to turn Twitter into his vision of a marketplace of ideas – one that would also welcome misinformation and whatever people want to say about it. other – encountered an ironic problem on all fake accounts on the platform. Musk says he put his bid to acquire Twitter on hold because he is worried about fake accounts.

But he said he would reinstate @realDonaldTrump, the former president’s Twitter account, and push the platform’s policy to reflect the laws of the land, which allow for even more varied and raw speech than you’ll find at home. TV or something. major social media platforms.

US law protects Americans from government control of their speech, but lets private companies impose their own standards.

Conservatives like Trump have long felt targeted by social media companies. A Texas law solves this problem, allowing residents to sue platforms with 50 million or more US dollars per month. users following allegations of censorship.

It would be a shock for social media companies to suddenly adopt a First Amendment, almost anything goes attitude, Mary-Rose Papandrea told me. She is a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina Law School and leads the university’s Promoting Democracy initiative.

“I think people who want to impose First Amendment doctrine on these private companies should be careful what they wish for,” she told me, pointing out that under First Amendment logic, Twitter could host pornography or obvious hate speech on its platform. .

Republicans seek to allow lawsuits against social media companies over free speech in Texas, but then applaud removal of books they dislike from school districts and address leaked draft notice of the Supreme Court on abortion as a major violation.

Democrats, meanwhile, generally want books off school shelves as a matter of free speech and hate limits on what teachers can discuss with elementary students in Florida — but are also wrong. comfortable with the idea of ​​Trump returning to Twitter.

The New York Times argued in a March opinion piece, “America has a free speech problem,” that the country could be backsliding in terms of openness.

“Americans are losing a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and express their opinions in public without fear of humiliation or rejection,” the editorial board wrote. from Journal.

The editorial itself was shamed and shunned as deaf.

Republicans aren’t shy about calling social reactions to controversial statements a “null culture,” but they were happy to pass a law in Florida literally nullifying Disney’s special governmental status. It was retribution for the company’s decision to publicly disagree with the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” Act.

Will Disney learn the lesson that corporations shouldn’t comment on anything political pushed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis?

He can still quietly donate to political causes, an exercise in free speech — even for corporations — recognized by the Supreme Court.

It’s unclear how the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court will view these types of questions on social media.

Papandrea said what makes her most uncomfortable is that the court could fundamentally change our view that free speech allows people to criticize powerful public figures.

She pointed to New York Times v. Sullivan of 1964, which allows everyone to criticize public figures.

“It is feared that there are a growing number of judges who would be willing to overturn this fundamentally important historic opinion which protects the rights of all speakers to criticize public officials. It would be a dramatic change and a dangerous change.

Conservative Supreme Court justices are certainly under fire today for being on the verge of taking away the right to privacy and for women to obtain abortions, as established in Roe v. Wade from 1973.

Violent protests outside the homes of conservative judges like Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh have led Republicans to claim the protesters are violating a 1950 law that prohibits picketing outside a judge’s home with the intention of influencing a decision.

But protesting a Supreme Court decision at least sounds like classic free speech.

Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, told me that the way we interact with speech is changing rapidly with access to more and different platforms for expression.

“But we’re also in a time where a lot of us just want to hear what we want to hear,” he said. “And we look for news and information that we agree with, and we want to push away people that we disagree with.”

What people are willing to hear can begin to have more of an effect on their ability to say it.

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