We should not minimize threats to the First Amendment, either from a demagogic president or from young Americans insufficiently schooled in free speech’s essential role in a democratic society. That said, in a time of animosity between two polarized political parties, the First Amendment is holding up.
In March, a Gallup-Knight Foundation poll found: “The majority of college students say protecting free speech rights (56 percent) and promoting a diverse and inclusive society (52 percent) are both extremely important to democracy. But when asked which was more important, students chose, by narrow margin, diversity and inclusion over free speech, 53 percent to 46 percent.” That said, 70 percent of students “favor an open learning environment that allows all types of speech over one that puts limits on offensive speech,” although that number is down from 78 percent in 2016. “Ninety percent of college students say it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking, but 10 percent say [it] is sometimes acceptable. A majority (62 percent) also say shouting down speakers is never acceptable, although 37 percent believe it is sometimes acceptable.”
Commentators on the right and left have generally portrayed this as the glass half-empty, but getting 90 percent or even 70 percent of Americans to agree on anything is no easy feat. Moreover, these questions, as is the case in many surveys, do not ask the central question about who is restricting free speech. In preferring inclusion over free speech, students, for example, may think they personally should favor the latter or that social media platforms should not permit racial epithets or bullying. It is not a statement about government regulation of speech.
In fact, students’ greatest fear about limiting speech comes from worry over the power of social media, which is the province of the private sector. “Students say discussion of social and political issues mostly takes place on social media (57 percent), rather than in public areas of campus (43 percent). They increasingly agree that social media can stifle free expression because people can block those whose views they disagree [with] (60 percent) or because people are afraid of being attacked (59 percent).”
Now a Pew Research Center study adds weight to the argument that aversion to government restrictions on speech actually runs deep:
When asked to choose between the U.S. government taking action to restrict false news online in ways that could also limit Americans’ information freedoms, or protecting those freedoms even if it means false information might be published, Americans fall firmly on the side of protecting freedom. Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say they prefer to protect the public’s freedom to access and publish information online, including on social media, even if it means false information can also be published. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) fall the other way, preferring that the U.S. government take steps to restrict false information even if it limits those freedoms, according to a survey conducted Feb. 26-March 11, 2018, among 4,734 U.S. adults who are members of Pew Research Center’s nationally representative. …
This position is strongest among younger Americans. At least six-in-ten adults ages 18 to 29 (65%) and 30 to 49 (62%) prefer no government restrictions on information flow compared with 53% of those 50 to 64 and 48% of those 65 and older.
In short, when it comes to the key First Amendment question (“Should government interfere with free speech, even false and damaging speech?”) Americans — especially young Americans — support free speech.
Technology companies have a lot of power, but they are not the government. Like a TV station or a newspaper, Facebook or Twitter could, for example, decide that it wanted only cute animal stories and sports news. That might be unwise, but it’s not a First Amendment issue. The government telling them to allow only cute animal stories and sports news would be a First Amendment problem.
When it comes to tech companies, “More U.S. adults (56%) favor technology companies taking steps to restrict false information, even if it limits the public’s freedom to access and publish information. By comparison, 42% prefer to protect those freedoms rather than have tech companies take action, even if it means the presence of some misinformation online.” In other words, a majority of Americans want tech companies to be a whole lot more responsible, but they don’t want government deciding what’s dangerous and what’s not. That’s a sound view of the First Amendment.
We should not underplay the danger from a president who views the press as the enemy of the people or who wants to eviscerate the concept of objective truth. We rightly worry that many of President Trump’s supporters show an appalling lack of concern for the American creed, including First Amendment rights. Hysteria and demoralization about the state of free speech are unwarranted; better to turn to the business of nurturing democracy — including core civil liberties — to withstand challenges from illiberal forces, which sadly include the president.