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The Importance of Free Speech

Courtesy of Governor Asa Hutchinson

The freedom of speech is one of the bedrock principles upon which our country was founded. The purchase of Twitter by the world’s richest man this week has reignited the discussion surrounding free speech, and I’d like to share my thoughts on the importance of this freedom.

Social media censorship has been a concern of many Americans for years. While platforms like Facebook and Twitter are privately owned companies that set their own rules for the service they provide, the concern over the spread of misinformation and disinformation on these sites is one shared by millions of Americans.

There is equal concern over how these private companies censor or ban certain speech, and the argument is that the platforms are, in essence, the public square where speech should not be limited.

These worries have led some elected leaders to call for increased censorship, while others have called for a hands-off approach.

Throughout our nation’s history, especially in times of war and turmoil, Americans have spilled a lot of ink about what speech, if any, should be limited by the government. The government plays a necessary role in ensuring public safety and protecting its citizens from violence. In other words, no one should be allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

Since the advent of the internet and social media, bad actors, such as violent terrorists who wish to harm us, have used these platforms to stir up unrest and recruit others to join their causes to harm others. This has been seen throughout the world, especially since the September 11th attack on the United States. In the wake of these horrific events, organizations like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban have used the internet and recruited and radicalized citizens around the world to commit acts of terrorism in their home countries or join their fight overseas.

These are legitimate threats that can interfere with the government’s commitment to ensure domestic tranquility and to provide for the common defense. It is important for these social media platforms to assure they do not cross the line into advocating violence.

But there is a difference between citizens engaging in speech directly intended to cause violence that is illegal and those engaging in speech we may not agree with.

In his dissent in the 1929 case of U.S. v. Schwimmer, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

The American Ideal calls for us to live in a nation where we can agree to disagree with our neighbors, have robust debate, and still live peaceably. The Bill of Rights identifies rights that the government may not infringe; it prohibits government from interfering with these rights that are essential to our freedoms, the rule of law, and our democracy.

I often see negative and hateful comments on social media. But despite this negativity, I am grateful to live in a nation where the rights of those who disagree can voice their opinions freely and without persecution. Whenever I check my Twitter account, I’ll be appreciative of the protection of freedoms we’re blessed to experience in this country.

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