Finding a space for free speech: An opinion editorial

This is the second of a two-part opinion-editorial series on free speech. The first part can be found here.

For those left questioning whether free speech remains alive and well on our campus, look no further than this past week’s ASWSUV election announcement that some have dubbed “Electiongate.” Candidates and allegations aside, free speech has certainly burgeoned in the week since the Judicial Board made the announcement invalidating the 2013 ASWSUV election results. This outburst of free speech has not taken place in the campus free speech zone, on the free speech boards or at public hearings, but in an entirely different type of free speech “zone”—the Internet.

Since the rise of commercialized Internet in the mid-90s, free speech advocates have vehemently fought for free speech protection in cyberspace. In 1997, Reno v. ACLU became the first ever Supreme Court ruling to take a stance on Internet free speech.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Stevens stated, “As a matter of constitutional tradition…we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest of encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”

With such a decision, the Supreme Court effectively extended First Amendment rights to Internet communication. The decision has stood, and—with the exception of laws regulating pornography and obscenities—free speech has remained relatively unrestricted on the Internet.

Recent attempts to curb First Amendment rights online have generally resulted in outrage and failure. Acts like SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act which proposed granting the government power to block Internet domains suspected of copyright infringement without adhering to due process, have failed after grassroot movements by social media users, bloggers and even corporations have decried such attempts as censorship.

Google’s own CEO, Eric Schmidt, responded to claims by the Indian government that unrestricted free speech could lead to harm by saying, “Many more voices will be heard that have not been heard so far. They are likely to be critical, perhaps even angry. But, we believe that the answer to bad speech is more free speech, not less.”

Although Internet censorship in countries like India may be a far cry from any proposed Internet regulations in the United States, it is an ongoing fight to ensure that free speech protection remains a priority.

At WSU Vancouver, many perceived the invalidating of the 789 ballots cast for ASWSUV president and vice president as an attack on free speech and a disregarding of the student voice. Others viewed it as a needed course of action to ensure fairness in the election process. Regardless of which argument holds the most weight in the fight for free speech, students took to the Internet to exercise their own right to freedom of expression.

Users of Facebook and Twitter berated the process, reprimanded candidates, defended candidates, scrutinized allegations, pledged not to vote again, promised to fight to vote again and sought out evidence to defend their cause. Students, alumni and even a member of the Judicial Board commented, liked, posted, tweeted and retweeted their opinions in defense of their views. In short, it was a free speech frenzy.

The free speech zones on campus? Surprisingly bare. As technology has advanced and society has shifted, free speech has moved to the last great frontier—not outer space, but cyberspace.

While such online activity is commendable and even capable of generating societal change—see the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement—it is important that we do not resort to “slactivism”—see Kony 2012. We must hold ourselves and our governing bodies accountable to not only the tenets of the First Amendment, but to the actual activities that transform the words of free speech into free speech powered action.

Movements like the upcoming campus event “First Amendment Thursday” are examples of the power of giving a physical space and presence to free speech. The event takes place from 1:00–3:30 p.m. April 4 in the Dengerink Administration building and will celebrate and explore First Amendment rights.

Speakers at the event will include Chancellor Mel Netzhammer, who has a doctorate in communications and is free speech advocate; Reed College Professor Pancho Savery, who has written numerous humanities and English articles about social issues; and WSU Vancouver IT Director Grisha Alpernas, who will share his perspective having been born and raised in the Soviet Union.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of “First Amendment Thursday” is the contribution of the student voice. Students have planned and created the event, and various student-led campus groups will present works relating to the importance of free speech.

The transition of free speech from university plazas and town halls toward Facebook newsfeeds and blog pages may be largely complete, but must have roots in the physical realm to flourish online.

After all, if an examination of the evolution of media law reveals anything, it is that the pendulum of the court’s decision can quickly swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. Technology has advanced at a much faster pace than the law can keep up with, but when it finally reaches the world of RSS feeds and Reddit, it may find itself wanting to roll back First Amendment protection on the Internet. When that happens, we can point to the roots of our online presence in the physical world and firmly state that Congress shall make no law abridging our freedom of speech, whether at our universities, in our town halls or on the Internet.

Jacob Schmidt is a senior studying English and media communications. He chairs the Student Media Board.

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