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Professor Roy Gutterman L'00 in WaPo: Safeguarding Free Speech

Posted on Wednesday 8/5/2020
Roy Gutterman

Why individuals, not governments, should safeguard free speech

(The Washington Post | July 31, 2020) In late May, as protests raged throughout the country and the coronavirus pandemic spread, President Trump signed a directive titled “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.” It contains magnanimous pronouncements about the importance of free speech and First Amendment protections. The opening reads like the kind of declaration that should end up on a parchment scroll or the base of a statute: “Free speech is the bedrock of American democracy. Our Founding Fathers protected this sacred right with the First Amendment to the Constitution. The freedom to express and debate ideas is the foundation for all of our rights as a free people.”

There is something ironic, if not Kafkaesque or Orwellian, about an executive order, imbued with language extolling free speech, that proposes an opposite effect by also calling on the federal government to monitor and regulate Internet and social media platforms. It isn’t clear how the government would regulate digital platforms, but the suggestion runs counter to the wide-open nature of free speech that facilitates all forms of discussion online — the hallmark of the Internet since it became commercial and accessible by ordinary people in the 1990s.

The president’s contradictory executive order highlights the dizzying world of free speech in America today. Trump has trampled on First Amendment and free-speech rights more vigorously than any president before him. Beyond the White House, free-speech battles are being waged across the country, on college campuses, social media and the airwaves, among voices from both the right and the left. Our increasingly fractious debates are pulling at the fabric of our free-speech protections, which ensure that all — even those with views offensive to others — have the right to be heard …

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