As Erosion of Free Speech Continues 34% Feel First Amendment Guarantees Too Many Rights

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) has adopted a new “Free Speech and Campus Civility” policy, which essentially disregards the First Amendment. Though initially the document espouses the benefits of free speech, it abruptly launches into an assault on the First Amendment rights of the FAU community. “What we do insist on, however, is that everyone in the FAU community behave and speak to and about one another in ways that are not racist, religiously intolerant or otherwise degrading to others,” the document reads.

But, this is in direct opposition to the First Amendment. The university has banned speech that is clearly protected under the First Amendment. It is also protected under Florida’s constitution.

As FIRE notes:

“This policy prohibits a great deal of constitutionally protected speech and expression. The ban on “religiously intolerant” speech has the potential to chill speech regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which has been a source of recent controversy at FAU. Heated debate on this and many other topics could quite easily lead, on either side, to claims of “religious intolerance.”

Similarly, the prohibition on any “racist” speech could be used to punish protected speech on controversial issues like immigration and affirmative action, opponents of which are often accused of racism. And the prohibition on “otherwise degrading” speech could apply to speech on virtually any topic that offends another person.”

FAU has a bit of a history when it comes to stomping on First Amendment freedoms. In March, the administration tried to punish a student who expressed uneasiness with a professor’s assignment which involved stomping on a piece of paper bearing the word “Jesus.” The professor, non-tenured communications instructor Deandre Poole, was placed on administrative leave but now has his job back, although he has been assigned to teach online classes.

Unfortunately, FAU is not alone in its aversion to free speech. In a recent survey conducted by the Newseum Institute, 34% of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. This represents an increase from last year and is also the largest single-year increase in the history of the State of the First Amendment national survey.

University policies, such as those at FAU, and the decline in Americans’ regard for the First Amendment is a growing trend.  This trend extends to social media.

Kirk Cameron ran into some problems with what appeared to be censorship, on the part of Facebook, when his upcoming faith-based movie, “Unstoppable” was blocked. Cameron made the announcement on his fan page that Facebook had blocked fans from posting any links to the website promoting his film because the content was labeled “abusive and unsafe.”

“We have been officially shut down by Facebook and unable to get any response from them,” Cameron communicated on his personal Facebook fan page. “Unstoppable” was made in partnership with Liberty University. Following Cameron’s alerting more than 500,000 Facebook fans of his ordeal, the social networking site removed the block albeit without any explanation.

Facebook has been accused by those on the left and right of being overzealous in determining what content is acceptable. The social network has come under fire for removing pages and content published by advocacy groups and dissidents in other parts of the world in addition to pages promoting heterosexuality and pro-Israel content.

Jillian York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has commented that, “there is at least a case to be made that the simplest course of action for a network like Facebook would be to only remove content when it is required to do so by law. But then what happens to the kind of content it just apologized for?”

It’s as though Facebook has a problem with the real world. In the real world dissidents and unpopular opinions exist. The overly sensitive can choose the type of content they want to view while those who do not wish to live in a bubble are free to sift through a variety of uncensored content.

As Jean-Loup Richet, Harvard blogger, observes regarding Facebook’s community standards: “Individual interpretation of proscribed content categories may lead to erring on the side of “protection” of users rather than protection of free speech.” And, though it is well within Facebook’s rights to regulate content as it sees fit, Slate magazine ponders the following:

“The question is not can Facebook censor speech, rather, but should it?

For years, activists all over the world have complained of arbitrary takedowns of content and unfair application of Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy. Along with breastfeeding moms are people like Moroccan atheist Kacem Ghazzali, whose Facebook pages promoting atheism in Arab countries were regularly removed.  Before he rose to fame as the man behind the January 25 protests in Cairo, Wael Ghonim experienced a takedown of his famous ‘We Are All Khaled Said” page because he was using a pseudonym.  And not a week goes by where, as director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I don’t receive emails from individuals from the United States to Hong Kong telling me their account was deleted “for no good reason.’”

Frustration with what is perceived as Facebook’s heavy handed treatment of conservatives has prompted the organization of a Facebook blackout, scheduled to take place on August 25:

“We are organizing a nationwide “blackout” of Facebook to protest their arbitrary and capricious policies targeting conservatives with censoring and suspensions. We are asking for all conservatives to suspend (deactivate) their accounts for at least 24 hours on August 25th. If you are a business or promoting a page and have a FB advertising account, we are asking that you also suspend that for 24 hours. (Eastern Time: 8/25/13 at 2 a.m. – Central Time: 8/25/13 at 1 a.m. – Mountain Time: 8/25/13 at 12 a.m. – Pacific Time: 8/24/13 at 11 p.m. – for 24 hours)”

As far as Twitter goes, the company has had a couple of international issues, one involving confidential account information handed over to French authorities. This was done to enable them to track down the authors of anti-Semitic tweets. This gesture was the culmination of a legal battle that started last year when the French Union of Jewish Students sued Twitter for allowing hate speech.

Then too, last year following a request by German authorities Twitter shut down the account of neo-Nazi group “Better Hannover.” The group was banned by the state for spreading nationalist socialist ideology. And, it was the first time Twitter withheld content by request of a specific country.

In the United States, threats to free speech run rampant from attempts to squelch criticism of Islam to institutions of higher learning thwarting freedom of expression.  The First Amendment is in The Constitution for good reason and it is alarming how willing some are to relinquish precious liberties. Ken Paulson, First Amendment Center President and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, opines: “It’s unsettling to see a third of Americans view the First Amendment as providing too much liberty.” This underscores the need for more First Amendment education. If we truly understand the essential role of these freedoms in a democracy, we’re more likely to protect them.”


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