Remember why the First Amendment is so important
For a country that claims to value our First Amendment right to free speech, it has become clear that some of our elected officials do not understand it.
State legislatures across the country have passed bill after bill that violate First Amendment free speech protections – protections that limit the government’s ability to infringe on the voice of individuals.
Yet a recent survey of more than 3,000 Americans found that 94% of them consider the First Amendment to be vital, and more than half say it should never be changed.
Now more than ever, we need a refocus on civic education to make sure Americans understand their constitutional rights. In particular, one study suggests that nearly one in five Americans cannot name a single freedom listed in the First Amendment.
Yet elected officials are regularly quoted in the media, espousing plans to require social media platforms to broadcast certain speeches or prohibit them from closing certain accounts. Ask honest constitution specialists, and they will assure you that these plans are unconstitutional.
This summer, a Florida federal judge temporarily banned the state from enforcing a new law targeting social media platforms that shut down the accounts of political candidates or “journalistic businesses,” allowing up to $ 250,000 in ‘fines per day.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed several equally unconstitutional bills. One, HB 20, claims to ban social media platforms from engaging in content moderation. Another, SB 4, aims to force Texas sports teams to play the national anthem.
The Arizona legislature has repeatedly reviewed a law that would require parents to enroll in any program that addresses gender identity, gender expression and sexuality, thereby limiting the ability of schools to teach historical events, including the Stonewall riots. It also restricted the teaching of HIV and AIDS awareness.
This represents a blatant violation of the First Amendment, which is one of the reasons Gov. Doug Ducey – a Republican – vetoed SB 1456. Yet lawmakers persisted and reintroduced the measure.
So why are all of these lawmakers, many of whom are graduates of elite law schools, proposing laws that violate the First Amendment? It may be political theater. Or maybe they just need a little civic education.
Like our elected officials, it seems even we voters need a refresher course on these issues. Only 36% of Americans know that social media companies are not responsible for the content that users post to their platforms, while just over half of those surveyed knew that the protected First Amendment flag was a form of freedom of expression.
In many opinions over the past century, the Supreme Court has made it clear that strict limits are placed on government when it comes to regulating speech.
As recently as June, the court ruled 8-1 in favor of a high school student who was sanctioned by her school for a social media post containing a well-known four-letter expletive. Although the court refrained from saying that public school officials could never sanction students for off-campus speeches, it made it clear that some speeches are protected by the First Amendment.
In November, the Supreme Court will hear a case claiming the city of Austin exceeded its power to regulate speech when it passed an ordinance that treats onsite signage differently from offsite signage.
Without a greater focus on civic education, and First Amendment rights in particular, many of us will continue to lack the knowledge and tools we need to fully participate in our governance, and taxpayers will continue to pay. the bill for court challenges to state laws that are patently unconstitutional – laws that should never have been proposed or passed in the first place.
Our Nation’s First President George Washington said, “If free speech is taken away, then stupid and silent we could be driven like sheep to the slaughterhouse. Free Speech Week reminds us that many of us need to re-educate ourselves about the collective rights and obligations we have as citizens living under some form of Republican government.
Amy Kristin Sanders is Associate Professor of Journalism and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studies global free expression rights.
A version of this editorial appeared in USA Today and Austin American-Statesman.