Online Freedom Of Speech Is Quickly Eroding

Jerri Ann Henry Public Advocate, Protect Internet Freedom
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The First Amendment took a beating across the country last week. In a strange twist, it happened throughout university campuses that were once considered the traditional epicenter of free speech, dissenting viewpoints and peaceful protest. Today’s activism has been replaced with “safe spaces,” reporters being muscled out of public places and online censorship that’s frighteningly similar to that of authoritarian regimes.

The movement to chill free speech on college campuses comes as a huge surprise, but the movement to chill speech online is becoming a common practice in the U.S. and other countries. It’s an alarming movement to shut down and ban anything that questions the dogma of the progressive left, academia and in some cases our own government.

If that seems like gross exaggeration, consider some recent events.

Last week, University of Missouri Assistant Professor of mass media Melissa Click became the face of media censorship when she verbally assaulted a reporter and called for “muscle” to violate the basic tenet of freedom of the press.

In September, an open mic conversation between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Germany’s President Angela Merkel revealed how the Facebook CEO could ban user posts critical of Merkel’s immigration policy.  

A national online Latino organization, Presente.org, is urging the U.S. Attorney General to arrest presidential candidate Donald Trump for his tone when talking about illegal immigration. Ironically, the same group loudly advocated for “net neutrality” earlier this year in order to protect free speech online.

A coalition of social advocacy groups are currently petitioning the Department of Education to ban popular social media apps from public campuses for fear user comments create an “unsafe space” for college students.

Climate change skeptics have found their voices of dissent literally banned on scientific social forums including Reddit and from other news organizations.  

And earlier this year, the U.S. Federal Elections Commission held hearings and has had ongoing discussions about ways to regulate online political speech that could extend to places like the Drudge Report and YouTube.

All of this is taking a toll. As tensions rise, Americans are becoming increasingly worried about freedom of speech on the Internet and feel that things will only get worse in the future. A new Morning Consult national survey reveals that one in three (34 percent) respondents say they have less freedom to speak their mind on the Internet today compared with a few years ago, and only one in 10 (12 percent) say they have more freedom to speak their mind. Conservatives are more likely to say they have less freedom today. When asked to look ahead a few years, about half (45 percent) of adults think they will have less freedom to speak their minds. Interestingly, this survey was conducted the week before events spread and escalated across college campuses.

Ironically, those that are leading the charge for censorship are the very same advocates who empowered the federal government to regulate the Internet in order to protect its “free and open” nature.

The proliferation of the Internet and the sharing of information and ideas has helped spread freedom and democracy, sparked innovation and advanced the human condition. But just as the web continues to grow the very social justice warriors that promised to keep the web “free and open” are using the government to bully and ban those who don’t support their online agenda, all from the comfort of their “safe space.” They aren’t about keeping the Internet open, they aren’t about Internet freedom, and they certainly aren’t about protecting free speech.

Jerri Ann Henry is Public Advocate for Protect Internet Freedom, a grassroots nonprofit organization of 1.6 million supporters dedicated to defending a truly free and open Internet, and preserving it as a tool for democratic distribution of information, societal change, and technological innovation