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What Exactly is Freedom of Speech on the Internet?

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Friendly Reminder: This article discusses legal terminology, but should in no way be considered legal advice.  

America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. We all are familiar with the concept of free speech. But very few people fully understand what that means. People throw around the first amendment, but it doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want, whenever you want. When you factor in the Internet, that complicates things even more. After all, you can say something cancel-worthy that can get international attention.

So what is free speech online? 

The Internet may be anonymous, but you are still a citizen, even online. Whether you get tried in a court of law or the court of public opinion, it’s good to understand how free speech affects you. While it’s amazing, it’s not a free pass. Also, learning your lesson could cost you tons in legal fees.

What is free speech?

There are limitations to free speech. Everyone is allowed to have an opinion and share it. This has expanded beyond American democracy to a part of international human rights law. But how it looks in different countries can vary. Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean that you have unlimited freedom in how you share it. 

Some straightforward limitations to freedom of speech and expression include the following:

  • Libel 
  • Slander
  • Obscenity
  • Pornography
  • Sedition
  • Incitement
  • Fighting Words
  • Classified Information
  • Copyright Violation
  • Trade Secrets
  • Food Labeling
  • Non-Disclosure Agreements
  • The Right to Privacy
  • Dignity
  • Public Security
  • Perjury

Some of these are pretty straightforward. You can’t share the secret recipe to KFC’s fried chicken, threaten people, start a riot, violate NDAs, and share private information. You wouldn’t want freedom of speech to put you, your family, your reputation, your business, or your country at risk. And yet, that can happen. Part of freedom of speech is regulated to protect your privacy and safety. 

What is the difference between libel & slander?

This can get pretty muddy when you factor in social media and online accounts. So let’s review a few straightforward key laws you won’t want to break. The biggest are libel and slander. These often get confused. An easy way to remember them is that libel is anything in print and slander is anything that’s said. 

If you print out posters that say Aunt Sheila is trash or Tom Cruise killed your cousin, you could put yourself at risk. If they’re proven false, then you could be charged with libel. This is a pretty straightforward limitation to free speech. Libel protects you in print. If The New York Times says you’re a garbage person with no sources, that’s dangerous. This is why many celebrities sue tabloids for defamation of character. Because their reputation is put at risk over something that may not be true.

Slander is anything that is said. If you get on television and say something damaging, you could get sued. Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself Sarah Michelle Gellar famously appeared in court as a child when she starred in a Burger King commercial that insulted McDonald’s by name. This was the first, and last, commercial to do that.

A Question of Decency 

Obscenity and pornography are also somewhat complex. After all, in the 1950s, Comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested, multiple times, on the charges of indecency for stand-up comedy performances that would be tame compared to what we see on basic cable. Plus, some Instagram photos might be considered pornographic by other standards. 

American legislation can be confusing. After all, the Communications Decency Act Of 1996 was created to protect children from potentially obscene content on the Internet. But like with many laws, there are a lot of confusing aspects tacked on. 

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was an interesting addition. It absolves websites from the responsibility of what someone says. If someone says something problematic or illegal on your blog, you’re not legally liable. It was built to protect the freedom of the Internet. After all, if every website could be sued for what was said on it, who could stay online? So rather than sue Facebook, Twitter, or Google, it is restricted to the person who is speaking. 

Adjustments to Section 230

But all these years later, the Internet has changed. There was no Instagram or Facebook in 1996. Also, some of these freedoms are in contention. Some adjustments getting proposed include the EARN IT Act, short for the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, of 2020. This act wants to adjust the limitations and immunity that websites have. It’s a little murky and could affect the future of end-to-end encryption. 

Also, in the wake of the Facebook whistleblower, the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act is being proposed to limit the authority that websites have by eliminating some of their powers. 

Times change, but freedom of speech is eternal…hopefully. Freedom of speech allows people to have opinions. But that doesn’t mean you can express it any how and any way. If you share an opinion but present it as a fact, that puts you at risk. If it hurts someone’s business, safety, or life, you’re in trouble legally. But here’s hoping now you have a better handle on how freedom of speech works.

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