Redefining Free Speech for the Digital Age

A Future Tense event recap.

Three women sit in armchairs in front of an auditorium stage.
Jennifer Daskal, Sylvia Burwell, and Anne-Marie Slaughter at American University
Angela Spidalette/New America

The rosy optimism of the early internet has faded away, and in its place has entered a sense that the way that we’re communicating online—with its microtargeting, cheapfakes and deepfakes, harassment, and misinformation—is an unprecedented threat to democracy. In so many ways, the digital revolution has challenged our traditional commitment to free speech and the First Amendment.

But that commitment has been challenged before, too. On Feb. 24, at the kick-off event for the Free Speech Project, historians, legal experts, and free speech advocates convened to look at how past debates around speech can inform how we protect the future of free speech.

In the first panel, Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, acknowledged that for most of her career, she embraced the perspective that “speech is good, and when speech is bad the answer is more speech”—she was a self-described “First Amendment absolutist.” Now, however, she is increasingly concerned about how online speech could erode our democracy. American University President Sylvia Burwell echoed this sentiment, saying that university leaders like her are trying to “create an environment where people can speak, express, develop their identity while defending their rights to do so.” As people become more alarmed by harmful online speech, many are calling for new regulatory proposals for online ads, hate speech, and other issues on social media platforms. But Slaughter argued “part of solution lies not in law but in the business model of companies that profit from extreme responses and getting the most clicks. There is an economic incentive to appeal to the very worst in us.”

While there are new dynamics with online communications, free speech debates course through American history. In the second panel, four media historians looked to the past of obnoxious, facetious, and harmful speech before the age of Twitter. To W. Joseph Campbell, American University professor and author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, Twitter itself isn’t a novel phenomenon. In the late 19th century, he said, editors used tweet-length editorial comments in the margins to critique opinion columnists they disagreed with. David Greenberg, Rutgers professor and author of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, argued that what we’re witnessing now with online speech and political disruption is part of a historic pattern: “It’s not uncommon for dislocations of technology to accompany political assaults on authority.”

Nicole Hemmer, a research scholar with the Obama Presidency Oral History project at Columbia University and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, pointed to the rise of radio in the early 20th century as another technology advancement that challenged authority. Because radio broadcasting created a “zone of speech,” that was difficult to regulate or guarantee for all, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission instituted the Mayflower Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide equal opportunity to present all sides of public issues. It effectively brought the government into governing what is legitimate debate. A century later, we are now attempting to regulate and guarantee free speech on online platforms, but many of the issues and incentives remain the same. Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia professor and author of News From Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900–1945, called for historians to push back against “golden age nostalgia” and focus on what speech is actually harmful. Tworek used the example of sometimes lethal “patent medicines” as a form of harmful disinformation that had economic incentives instead of political ones.

If economic and political incentives have driven misinformation throughout history, what is distinct about online speech? Moderator Katherine Mangu-Ward, editor in chief of Reason, pushed the historians to consider whether the fast-paced nature of online speech has changed its nature. Campbell countered that people have blamed technology for social dissonance throughout history, noting that “Victorians thought they lived in a very fast-paced society. … They felt like they had no time to reflect.” While online speech is a heated topic in coastal cities, Tworek noted that many rural Americans do not have access to the internet, and the “velocity” of communication online may be enhancing the rural/urban divide. Hemmer argued that the “loss of faith in journalism” is more important to understanding misinformative online speech than its velocity.

The final panel brought together Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America and author of the forthcoming Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, and Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for public interest technology and local initiatives at New America, to discuss how to defend speech for everyone. Nossel believes it’s critical that we make free speech protections relevant to the rising generation: Young “people aren’t against free speech, they are calling for censorship because they feel targeted, harassed, and isolated,” she said. The challenge is how we acknowledge and approach hateful speech when it’s used to silence others. Muñoz, a longtime activist, said that while the upswing of xenophobia and racism in popular discourse has been shocking, there is some value to the openness of online platforms. “We’re in an environment where racist sentiments are coming out of the mouth of the president, now we can see what it is and call it out when we see it,” she said.

Muñoz said she believes that a crucial step is making the technology sector more diverse and being deliberate about the architecture of online spaces. Nossel—who has held leadership roles in Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the State Department—has found that online speech is exceptionally complicated because the platforms developing the architecture of online spaces are multinational and are pulled between different free speech values. The United States needs to embrace its role as the “global standard bearer for free speech,” she said.

Watch the full event on the New America website.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.