How Free Is Your Speech?

Democracy Examined

The Topline


Neither the Left nor Right has taken the high road on protecting the First Amendment

When my daughter was a college student a few years ago, she was approached by a fellow student who asked her if she believed in the First Amendment. “Of course,” she replied. The other student asked if she would sign a petition saying so. Naively, she did. What she was actually signing, or rather, signing up for, was the campus chapter of a partisan political organization. When she began receiving emails from the group, she felt duped, but learned a lesson about reading before signing.

The episode also taught her something about the First Amendment: both political sides believe they have a monopoly on it. The reality is less clear. As most Americans know, the First Amendment guarantees five freedoms, but in recent years, the term has become shorthand for freedom of speech, particularly online. In this issue, we’ll take a look at who’s threatening your freedom of speech, who’s protecting it, and why the lines are so blurred in 2024. —Melissa Amour, Managing Editor


“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech”

The First Amendment is everywhere these days. In a sign of the times, both President Biden and Donald Trump, the two presumptive major-party candidates for president, are connected to court cases pertaining to this cherished cornerstone of American democracy. And this term, the US Supreme Court has heard oral arguments in five cases involving questions about the appropriate application of the First Amendment. This is occurring at a time when nearly 70 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track on free speech. Indeed, more and more Americans now admit to self-censoring, and growing minorities are open to limiting what others can say.

“The average American already thinks that free speech in America is in dire straits. Most worryingly, they think it will get worse,” says Sean Stevens, chief research advisor at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “These findings should be a wake-up call for the nation to recommit to a vibrant free speech culture before it’s too late.” Let’s take a look at how.

What You Should Know

Though some Americans believe freedom of speech is absolute in every situation, the First Amendment only guarantees that Congress will make no law abridging it. So what has Congress been up to? You’re likely already familiar with the potential ban of the video-sharing platform TikTok, but that’s just one of a few bills that could curtail online speech in the name of protecting children.

“the bipartisan Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA 2.0)… builds upon current law to strengthen protections related to the online collection, use and disclosure of personal information of children and minors up to age 16. This bill will address the excessive collection and surveillance of youth, ban harmful targeted advertising and prompt Big Tech platforms to provide young people and parents with the tools needed to navigate the online world.” —US Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida

There’s less political agreement around free speech in other areas, and each side has staked out areas of strength and weakness. For example, Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to counter book bans, while rejecting legislation that would prohibit federal officials from suppressing certain views online. And Republicans have sought to protect free speech on college campuses, while pushing restrictions on LGBTQ-themed events and materials.

“[W]e’re seeing a wave of bills targeting drag performances, where simply being gender nonconforming is enough to trigger the penalty. We’re also seeing a wave of bills regulating what can be in public or K-12 school libraries. On college campuses, we have been tracking data about attempts to get faculty members punished or even fired for speech or expression and the numbers are startling—it’s the highest rate that we’ve seen in our 20 years of existence.” —Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

In other words, while both Democrats and Republicans claim to be the protector of free speech, both parties have shown a willingness to forsake the First Amendment when it stands in the way of achieving other political objectives.

“Some of the people most vocally defending the First Amendment are the ones most open to dismantling it—without even admitting that they’re doing so.” —Adi Robertson, senior policy editor at The Verge

How We Got Here

In 2015, Pew Research found that Americans were more supportive of free speech than any other nation, but things are changing. Now, about a third of Republicans and a third of Democrats “completely” or “mostly” agree that the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” according to a recent survey from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. What happened in the intervening years? Well, among other things, the number of people using social media more than doubled, from 2.07 billion in 2015 to 4.95 billion today.

“The economics, computer algorithms, and social dynamics that make up social media platforms are doing things to politics that traditional media cannot.” —Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara

Social media has created a host of free speech challenges. Foreign disinformation, pandemic misinformation, conspiracy theories, election lies, hate—all distributed to millions of people at lightning speed—have had serious real-world repercussions that have particularly impacted left-leaning Americans’ views on free speech.

“Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are much more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to support the U.S. government taking steps to restrict false information online (70% vs. 39%). There was virtually no difference between the parties in 2018, but the share of Democrats who support government intervention has grown from 40% in 2018 to 70% in 2023, while the share of Republicans who hold this view hasn’t changed much.” —Pew Research Center

Meanwhile, the rise of so-called “wokeism,” with its hyperfocus on new gender-related terms, microaggressions, safe spaces, and cancel culture, has animated the Right. It has even ruptured the Republican Party’s long-standing laissez-faire approach to business, leading some to call for increasing government regulation.

“No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing. Yet corporate America eagerly dumps woke, toxic nonsense into our culture, and it’s only gotten more destructive with time. These campaigns will be met with the same strength that any other polluter should expect.” —US Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida

While much of this debate breaks along partisan lines, there are areas of agreement. A 2023 Surgeon General’s report declaring that social media presents a “profound risk of harm” to children has fueled a bipartisan push to pass rules to safeguard kids. Most Americans agree that the US government should take steps to restrict false information and violent content online. The problem is, there’s often wide disagreement as to what constitutes false information and violent content.

“The thing that I don’t know is, does anyone really have a principled position on this? Or is it just about the politics?” —Genevieve Laker, First Amendment scholar at the University of Chicago

What People Are Saying

There is no question that controversial events and cultural change over the last decade have led some Americans to rethink their view of freedom of speech. It’s happening on the political Left.

“The rapid shift in the views of Democrats against free speech is alarming. It raises critical questions about the influences reshaping these perspectives and the speed at which this change is happening.” —Dustin Olson, managing partner of American Pulse Research & Polling

And it’s also happening on the Right.

“As the Republican Party evolves from a party focused on individual liberty and limits on government power to a party that more fully embraces government control of the economy and morality, it is reversing many of its previous stances on free speech in public universities, in public education, and in private corporations. Driven by a combination of partisan animosity and public fear, it is embracing the tactics that it once opposed.” —David French, contributing writer at The Atlantic

But, not surprisingly, it’s happening in ways that dovetail with each political party’s unique interests.

“Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers, and discourage open discussion in classrooms.” —The New York Times Editorial Board

Fortunately, an overwhelming majority of Americans still embrace the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee, and view it not as a problem to solve but as the solution to what ails us.

“We definitely see fractures in American society at large, but most Americans still agree that the First Amendment is a very good thing. I would use the word revere. I think they definitely see it as a tool that we can use to bridge divides in our country, and that’s been true year over year.” —Kevin Goldberg, First Amendment specialist at the Freedom Forum

  • The free speech recession deepens across the democratic world —Cato at Liberty Blog
  • Free speech for all? Poll reveals Americans’ views on free expression post-2020 —Knight Foundation
  • Election 2024 Poll: Americans are divided, but agree on most core values —Associated Press
  • Global tensions help fuel free speech debate on college campuses —Axios
  • Elected officials should avoid heated, aggressive speech, most in US say —Pew Research Center

  • Wray’s warning: FBI chief to share concerns of organized attack by ISIS in US —The Hill
  • Mike’s muddle: House Republicans revolt against spy agency bill, signaling trouble for Johnson —The Washington Post
  • Montana rocks the vote: Montana strikes down voting restrictions —State Court Report
  • Not just here: Global study finds voters skeptical about fairness of elections. Many favor a strong, undemocratic leader —Associated Press
  • Give this a listen: Renewing Democracy & Pushing Back Against Authoritarians —Open Global Rights

  • Iran: Biden vows ‘ironclad’ support for Israel amid Iran attack fears —BBC News
  • Israel: Hamas may not have enough living hostages for ceasefire deal —The Wall Street Journal
  • Japan: Japanese prime minister urges Congress to act on Ukraine, Israel aid —USA Today
  • Russia: Russian trolls target US support for Ukraine, Kremlin documents show —The Washington Post
  • South Korea: South Korea’s opposition wins in landslide parliamentary elections —NPR

Hey Topline readers, you remember the drill. We want to hear your reactions to today’s stories. We’ll include some of your replies in this space in our next issue of The ToplineClick here to share your take, and don’t forget to include your name and state. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!