Right of Free Speech and the Cancel Culture

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By: T Jeffersonian

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution extensively protects the rights of free speech and expression. Freedom of speech is the unrestrained public expression of opinions without censorship, interference, or restraint by the government. More than the basic freedom of speech is included; inherently the right of free speech also encompasses freedom of thought. The founders of the United States believed that freedom to think and to speak are indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truths. Our founders observed under British rule in the Colonies, without free speech and assembly, political discussions would not exist. In itself, the freedom of speech protects against the dissemination of exceeding harmful doctrine and makes it known that the greatest foe of our individual freedoms are silent people. Public discussion through free speech is a citizens’ political duty and is a fundamental principle of American government.

An interesting phenomenon related to free speech is occurring in American society. This phenomenon is much older than people in modern times might expect and has been practiced by both conservatives and liberals. This phenomenon is called “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is a form of public and social banishment. The person being “canceled” is typically removed or unfollowed from online social media outlets or is publicly humiliated in some form or fashion. The targeted person in question typically has made offensive or subjectively inappropriate comments, even comments from years ago can cause this type of treatment. Cancel Culture is also associated with “call out culture,” which involves online shaming and possible subsequent boycotting of the canceled person’s economic brand. The boycott is intended to cause loss of clout and influence. 

Today, the number of liberal affluent and influential figures seems to be getting larger, including growing numbers of outspoken politicians and celebrities. These celebrities have far reaching social media followings encompassing millions to hundreds of millions of subscribers on various internet platforms. When these celebrities or politicians identify an individual that has made “inappropriate” comments or remarks, they seemingly are able to mobilize an army of followers that engage in cancel culture tactics. Some notable examples of cancel culture are:

Pepsi: Criticized for a controversial ad that appropriated global protest movements including Black Lives Matter. 

Equinox: The gym club brand faced a backlash after it emerged that its owner was holding a Trump fund-raiser.

Starbucks: Was targeted for telling employees not to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts and badges.

Nike: Released a shoe with the original US flag. The flag has only 13 stars and comes from a time when slavery was legal.

Uncle Ben’s: Changed its name and branding after criticism over racial stereotyping.

Goya Foods:  The company’s chief executive, Robert Unanue, attended an event at the White House where he praised President Donald Trump.

Some of the largest social media companies themselves have also engaged in this type of behavior. Both liberal and conservative politicians throughout our nation’s history have been canceled. Most recently in early 2021, the social media companies targeted former President Donald Trump, to an unprecedented degree. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Shopify, YouTube, Google, and several others all moved to cancel or limit the former President’s reach to the public. Even in late 2020, many of these restrictions occurred during the intense 90-day national campaign period leading up to the November 2020 elections. Losing the ability to reach millions of voters during this crucial period of time obviously affects any politicians’ chances of success. The damage to Donald Trump’s campaign was substantially magnified due to the pandemic, as social media and virtual outreach became more important than ever.  

Starting in the earliest days of our nation, critical speech directed at the government and government officials has always met our freedom of speech with conflict. The conflicts usually persist due to the difficulty in determining whether speech presents a clear and present danger to the government. Determination of clear and present danger should be considered while not eliminating citizens’ right to Due Process. Due Process Clauses are found in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. These Clauses prohibit arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty, or property by the government except as authorized by law. Due process is however an afterthought in modern day Cancel Culture. In Cancel Culture, a person’s freedom of speech is banned through mob rule, completely disregarding an individual’s rights guaranteed to them in the constitution. In the end, the targeted person can attempt to undertake due process by counter accusing for defamation and libel, but due process is slow and costly. There certainly was no time for Donald Trump to be given his true right to due process during the lead-up to the elections.  

The Way Forward

Due process must be given, as it is the law of the land. In the United States. Section 230 is a piece of Internet legislation in the United States, passed into law as part of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. At its core, Section 230(c)(1) provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by third-party users. Social media companies, who are protected under Section 230 laws actually has a good faith clause that actually allows these companies to do this legally. News media and social media owners and operators must guarantee the rights to free speech and thought are protected. Through these means to the discovery and spread of political truths will protect against the dissemination of exceeding harmful doctrine.

Unfortunately, unbiased media has never existed in the United States. During the American War for Independence, newspapers were predominantly strongholds for patriotism. As the country grew, media outlets consistently aligned to the predominant political party of the time and the geographic region. It therefore may be impossible to ever ensure an impartial and fair media.

While it may feel like all hope is lost, we can ensure that social media platforms’ ability to create monopolies within their respective outlets is restricted. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the United States government forced American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) to divest the Bell Companies because AT&T had become a monopoly. In the 21stt century, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and others must be carefully monitored to ensure that they are not monopolies that can restrict free speech and free thought. There are plenty of smaller platforms, but none have the mass audiences of the aforementioned platforms. When these companies and their liberal owners and operators cancel political figures and restrict free speech and free thought during an election, they are no different than Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and other hackers attempting to influence our elections.