Suppression of Speech in the Digital Age

by Anna McCuan, Age 17
Submitting Teacher: John McCuan

“Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” … or, if the Constitution had been written in the twenty-first century, of the Internet. While advanced technologies of today such as the Internet were certainly beyond the imagination of our founding fathers, the value they placed on freedom of expression, whatever the medium, is clear in the Bill of Rights. The drafters of the Constitution understood that information is power, and a government acting without the restraining influence of a vocal citizenry can easily descend into tyranny; they saw clearly that a free society cannot exist without freedom of expression.

Since the advent of the Internet, access to information has expanded. Farmers in India watch YouTube videos on aquaponics, African students participate in MIT classes, and children in Indonesia laugh over the antics of Tom and Jerry. But it is perhaps even more significant that for the first time in history divergent political views can be expressed on a world stage outside the traditional channels of corporate or government controlled media. Still in its relative infancy, the Internet has been credited with playing a critical role in the grassroots support of the Ron Paul presidential campaign, the Arab Spring, and the organization of Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Recently, however, a troubling trend has developed. As the jihadist militant group ISIS has increased its use of Internet platforms such as Twitter to recruit new members, often targeting disaffected Muslims in western countries, concerns about national security in the United States have grown. In response, prominent politicians, such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have argued for restrictions on Internet sites that contain Islamic State propaganda, inflammatory YouTube lectures, jihadist chat rooms, and sermons from men like Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent ISIS recruiter.

Despite unease over national security, many believe a restriction on Internet usage would be a violation of the basic rights to free speech set forth in the First Amendment. The potential implementation of government restrictions on Internet speech also raises several important questions, including what criteria would be used to restrict material, who would make the rules, and how they would be enforced.

If we allow a government entity to restrict anyone’s speech based on a perceived security threat, we would open the door to government manipulation of public opinion. As soon as we allow restrictions on what may be said, and allow someone else to decide what those restrictions can be, we essentially permit our freedom to rest upon the caprices of whomever happens to be in power.

We next turn to the question of how laws restricting free speech on the Internet would be enforced. Some have suggested graded penalties which would include fines and prison sentences. Others advocate forcing companies like Twitter and Facebook to do more to block offensive materials, such as pro-ISIS propaganda. Either method requires a considerable government infrastructure to monitor site usage and enforce penalties, an infrastructure the U.S. can ill afford with a current balance of more than nineteen trillion in debt.

In this new arena of the First Amendment debate, it is particularly troubling to note that although the United States government is seriously considering the restriction of certain sites, with significant penalties for those who access them, successful restriction of terrorists’ use of the Internet would be virtually impossible. In China, for example, a country with an extremely strict Internet usage restrictions, students routinely hack around the firewall, or flood the Internet with “forbidden” words such as “democracy.” In many ways, the controversy surrounding ISIS’s use of the Internet for recruiting is mostly an issue for political grandstanding, rather than a legitimate national security concern. How the government responds will set precedents for whether or not Big Brother can restrict speech on the Internet.

Today, the defenders of Internet free speech rights may be less vocal than they might have been in 1787 at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Many Americans have grown accustomed to an environment of restrictive government. This lethargic attitude toward personal liberty was described by John Stossel in his recent TV special “Censored in America.” Stossel pointed out that many schools have already placed restrictions on free speech. While students learn about the principles of free speech in political science class, the example they are shown on campus is one of intolerance and restriction. Tomorrow’s adults are taught that personal opinions on sensitive topics, such as abortion, homosexuality, and the welfare state are best self-censored. In the particular case of ISIS recruitment, the ideologies of radical Islam don’t get much traction in the United States and are an easy target for those who wish to continue eroding free speech in our country. Unfortunately, what unsuspecting Americans don’t realize is that the precedents set by restricting Internet usage for members of radical Islam would have broader effects than simply shutting down a few chat rooms. The government would be sending us a clear message: we are in control of what you may say.