Why Americans Are Rethinking Free Speech

Protesters participate in the BLD PWR and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles final march to the polls on October 28, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
SourceRich Fury/Getty

Why Americans Are Rethinking Free Speech

By Joshua Eferighe


Because social media companies now occupy an institutional role in government.

By Joshua Eferighe

Since America’s founding through to now, reflected in this year’s street protests for racial justice, the First Amendment freedoms of speech, religion, press and assembly have been at the heart of the American identity.

Which is why it’s so surprising that Americans are starting to feel differently about freedom of speech. A recent Gallup/Knight Foundation poll asked 1,269 Americans about their views on social media, freedom of expression and the 2020 election, and found that they’ve become less supportive of free speech online. In fact,

56 percent of Americans in 2020 believe in the right to freely express views on social media, compared to 65 percent in 2019.

That means nearly half of the country — 44 percent — believes freedom of speech should be restricted.

John Sands, the Knight Foundation’s director of learning and impact, explains why his team conducted this research: the sharp focus on social media companies as purveyors of information, or misinformation, ahead of the 2020 election. The researchers noticed a “techlash.” Last December, 77 percent of respondents said major internet and technology companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple wielded too much power.

“We were really surprised by the downward shift in support for free expression in social media,” Sands says. “We don’t know exactly what’s behind that shift, but it’s hard not to see the shift in the context of all the crazy that’s happened this year, and the way that platforms have tried to respond to all of it.” 

And those attempts have taken place against a backdrop of increasingly frustrated users in search of information. Twitter’s decision to flag Trump’s tweets with a fact-check label this past spring has proven controversial. And most recently, Twitter and Facebook’s handling of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story landed their chief executives a date with Congress less than a week before the presidential election. 

While some may argue Twitter’s “get the facts” disclaimer on Trump’s tweet calling the election rigged was the right decision, it’s harder to defend Twitter or Facebook’s call to limit the Post’s Hunter Biden piece, regardless of whether you believe it was biased or lacked sufficient evidence.

For Americans opposed to media-driven censorship, such measures are seen as gross, disproportionate oversteps and violations of the First Amendment. More importantly, it raises questions about their federal government protections under Section 230, which gives tech companies immunity from defamation and libel laws that traditional publishers are subjected to. Why? Because these companies are considered a forum — a “town square,” in the words of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — and not a publisher themselves. But if they’re halting distribution of certain stories, where does their right to do so begin and end?


A man wears a shirt with anti-media sentiments during a Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, in September.

The partisan divide represented in these recent poll numbers is also interesting. Democrats, who tend to identify as liberal and are proud protectors of individual liberties, including freedom of speech, saw their support for free online expression drop from 52 to 33 percent, whereas Republican support rose from 76 to 78 percent between 2019 and now. “On the left, it’s more of a recognition of harms to people, and on the right, there’s a concern about censorship and how the views of conservative voices can be protected,” Sands explains.

That aligns with what American gay rights activist and writer Konrad Anders Juengling says. According to him, America’s free speech laws need an update where, instead of lauding that anyone can say anything, we should be questioning the effect the speech has. “Just like people cannot legally incite imminent violence, they should not be able to incite others with hate speech against a minority population,” he explains. “We have the duty as an advanced society to move beyond unregulated hate speech being protected. It’s time for hate speech laws to come to America,” he says. 

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin disagrees. He says that freedom of speech should remain intact on- and off-line, despite the hazards these social media sites may bring.

“I don’t think there’s a way to get rid of it where the cure is not worse than the disease,” he says. According to him, the solution is as simple as asking yourself whether you would trust the extremes of either side of the political aisle with the power of determining what is appropriate speech — and what isn’t. If the answer is no, then it’s best to leave things as they are. “The root of the problem is not so much there is bad speech out there, but that there are people gullible enough or ignorant enough or biased enough that they accept the truth of what is said,” he explains. “If you don’t trust the people to sift through the information and not fall for deception or error, then you also shouldn’t trust them to be good voters who can responsibly elect,” he adds.