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Future Hindsight is a weekly podcastthat takes big ideas in civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for everyday citizens.

Dec 28, 2019

The First Amendment

The First Amendment protects four types of freedom of expression: freedom of speech, belief, assembly, and the ability to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It states that “Congress shall make no law” to infringe on these four freedoms. Over time, “Congress” has been extended to include the executive branch, as well as state and local governments. The court’s view of the First Amendment is extremely broad, which means that America protects more speech than any other country in the world. Defamation, harassment, and speech that incites imminent violence are the only kinds of speech that are not protected. The First Amendment also does not extend to private institutions such as universities or companies like Facebook.

Undermining the Press

The President is allowed to say whatever he wants about the press as a private citizen because of his First Amendment protections. However, the President cannot use the power of the federal government to exact reprisals against the press. For instance, when the White House revoked press passes earlier this year, it contravened the Constitution. Never before has a President undermined and used retributive action against the press like this, and other countries are taking note. Repressive measures like these come directly from an authoritarian playbook, and according to PEN America, the number of journalists jailed worldwide for “fake news” tripled last year because of it. America was once the moral leader on free speech issues around the world, the current administration’s repressive tactics are withering that leadership.

Protected Speech

The problems of hateful speech and fake news are uniquely difficult because in most cases they are protected by the First Amendment. While hateful speech is protected by the government, private institutions are allowed to police content on their own platforms or campuses. The ability to share unpopular ideas should coexist in a way that still allows for open debate, but that is not always the case. At dozens of campuses, controversial speakers who are invited to speak about their views were shut down by students. Fake news poses a threat by eroding the facts democracy is based on. We cannot let the government control it by shutting down websites because they may start shutting down legitimate sites—such as climate change websites—based on political ideology. Instead, we can counter it by educating the public about how to identify fake news, and taking steps as a society to disavow propaganda and misinformation.

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Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America, which she has run since 2013. In that time, she has doubled the budget, staff, and membership. She previously served as COO of Human Rights Watch, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations.

PEN America is a non-profit organization working at the crossroads between human rights and literature. They champion free speech around the world, celebrate creative expression, and defend the liberties that make it possible.

You can follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneNossel, and PEN America @PENAmerica.