Events Marking the History of Free Speech in the United States

US Constitution

Freedom of speech, or the right to express ideas and opinions without restraint, is an ideal that dates back to ancient Greece. The Greek word “parrhesia” meaning “free speech” first appeared in the fifth century B.C.

We’ve come a long way since then and so have our notions of what free speech is and what constraints should be put on it. This article describes some of the landmark events that have shaped our thoughts on free speech. Events are presented in reverse chronological order.

Google, Apple and Amazon take down Parler

Following a riot at Capitol Hill on January 6th, 2021 that left 5 people dead, several hi-tech companies pulled the plug on Parler, a social media app that skyrocketed in popularity after President Trump was ban from Twitter and Facebook.

On January 8th, Google removed Parler from the Google Play store. Google’s statement cited a lack of “robust moderation for egregious content” on the part of Parler and an “ongoing and urgent public safety threat”.

On January 9th, Apple removed Parler from the App Store, shortly after it became the most downloaded social media app. Apple said, “there is no place on our platform for threats of violence”.

Later that day, Amazon terminated its agreement with Parler, effectively shutting down the service.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Glenn Greenwald remarked, "None of the first dozen people arrested by the FBI in connection with Wednesday's riot at the U.S. Capitol were active users of Parler. The overwhelming amount of planning for that event... was done on Facebook and on YouTube and on Twitter." Others noted mass murders, such as the New Zealand mosque attack which was live-streamed on Facebook, that didn't result in severe consequences for the companies used to plan and promote the events.

John Maetz created Parler in 2017 to counter what he called a "lack of transparency in big tech, ideological suppression and privacy abuse". Maetz created an independent panel to moderate & remove content that violated company terms.

In mid-2020, CNBC wrote an article on Maetz stating "He's so intent on getting some liberals onto the platform that he’s offering a $20,000 “progressive bounty” for an openly liberal pundit with 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook to start a Parler account.

Social Media Bans Donald Trump

On January 6th, President Trump organized a rally promising a "wild" time for those who participated. Following the rally, rioters broke into the Capitol building, leaving 5 people dead.

On Friday, January 8th, 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had banned President Donald Trump from Facebook and Instagram indefinitely. “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Twitter followed suit a day later, banning President Trump permanently. "After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence," Twitter said.

Shortly before his account was taken down, Trump released a video on Twitter stating "We had an election that was stolen from us, but you have to go home now, we have to have peace".

A day later, Trump released a video stating "The demonstrators who infiltrated the Capitol have defiled the seat of American democracy. To those who engaged in acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay".

On January 7th, Trump released a statement, "Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th" following previous claims he would never concede the election.

On January 13th, Trump was impeached for the second time by Congress for "incitement of insurrection".

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996 and included Section 230, a provision protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet. That is quite ironic as the original intent of the test was to restrict free speech on the Internet. In fact, many members of the Internet community objected strongly and anti-free speech provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court.

Section 230 states that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider". This protected social media companies such Facebook, Twitter and Google from being held liable for what others posted on their platform.

In 2020, the issue returned to the limelight as politicians from across the spectrum claimed it shielded companies from their responsibility in circulating misinformation.

Resignation of James Bennent and Bari Weiss from the New York Times

On June 7th, 2020 the New York Times announced the resignation of James Douglas Bennet, editor of the editorial page. His departure followed the publication of an article by Senator Tom Cotton titled Send in the Troops, calling for the deployment of federal troops in major American cities to counter violent rioting.

Bennet has been quiet about the reasons for his dismissal. However, Bari Weiss who worked for Bennet, later explained, “It took the paper two days and two jobs to say that the Tom Cotton op-ed “fell short of our standards.” We attached an editor’s note on a travel story about Jaffa shortly after it was published because it “failed to touch on important aspects of Jaffa’s makeup and its history.” But there is still none appended to Cheryl Strayed’s fawning interview with the writer Alice Walker, a proud anti-Semite who believes in lizard Illuminati."

On July 14, 2020, Bari Weiss published a resignation letter explaining why she decided to leave her post as an op-ed staff writer. In it, she described a culture that resisted the free exchange of ideas. “Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” wrote Bari Weiss.

Weiss continued, “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space.”

Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission

Citizens United v. the FEC was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States concerning campaign finance. In the 2010 decision, the Court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting the amount of money that corporations, nonprofits, labor unions, and other associations can spend on political campaigns.

The case was brought by Citizens United which sought to release a film critical of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before the 2008 Democratic primary elections. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act prohibited corporations and labor unions from making an "electioneering communication" 30 days before a primary or 60 days before an election.

The case was won by Citizens United and has contributed to great increases in spending by groups seeking to influence elections. In 2015, Mitt Romney famously quipped that “Corporations are people, my friend,” resulting in widespread public backlash.

Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley

The Free Speech Movement was a lengthy student protest which took place during the 1964–65 academic year at the University of California, Berkeley. Thousands of students participated in FSM which is recognized as the first, large-scale act of civil disobedience on American college campuses during the 1960s.

Students demanded that the University administration support on-campus political activities and acknowledge the right to free speech and academic freedom. The movement played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement.

Backlash to the event contributed to the victory of Ronald Reagan as Governor of California in 1966 who promised to “clean up the mess in Berkeley”. Reagan subsequently set up the UC Board of Regents and dismissed UC President Robert Kerr for being to lenient on the protestors.

In 2017, UC Berkeley cancelled speeches on campus by Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Bill Maher prompting some to claim it had played a pivotal role in the onset of Cancel Culture.

Founding of FIRE

In 1999, professor Alan Charles Kors and Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate created the Foundation for the Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The mission of this non-partisan organization is to "defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty."

A year before FIRE was created, the founders published a book titled, The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America’s Campuses.

Lenny Bruce Convicted for Obscenity

In 1962, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity for his performance at The Gate of Horn in Chicago. He is convicted after a lengthy trial, however the ruling was overturned in 1964. In 2003, Governor Pataki posthumously pardonned Lenny Bruce.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

The ACLU is a nonprofit organization founded in 1920 "to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States". The organization is officially nonpartisan, and has been supported and criticized by leftwing and rightwing organizations alike.

Clear-and-Present Danger Test

In Schenck v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes presented his clear-and-present-danger prohibiting “words used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger”. In this document, Justice Holmes wrote that not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, citing the now-famous example of falsely crying fire in a crowded theater.

Espionage Act

In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act which stated, "Congress passes the Espionage Act, making it a crime “to willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States.” The led to the forming of the Civil Liberties Bureau, a precursor to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In 1933, President Roosevelt pardoned all those who had been convicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

1st Amendment of the United States Constitution

The 1st Amendment of the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In practical terms, the 1st Amendment has served as the backbone for protecting freedom of religion, free speech and freedom of the press.

Marc Bolh

Founder ☞ Vidalingua, Loaa Digital, Ascendo
Advisor ☞ Renoun Skis
Investor 👼🏻

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Revision history
January 17, 2021 Version 1.1
January 10, 2021 Version 1.0