My Views Regarding SOPA, Free Speech, and Censorship
If you have been watching the news and ads much at all lately, you have inevitably heard about the highly controversial bill, SOPA. Although the general consensus among an overwhelming majority of American Internet users is that this bill should be rejected, there are organizations (especially from the lucrative film-making industry) with deep pockets that are lobbying for this bill. I am among those who strongly oppose this bill because of the great potential this bill has to strangle the right of free speech. However, this bill has the intentions of stopping online piracy. Those are good intentions, right? Should we allow absolutely “free speech” despite the illegal activities that are done under its protection? That's definitely something to seriously consider. In this article, I will share my views related to this question.
Free speech is the cornerstone of the American culture. It was considered so essential to a strong, free country that it was the first right of the people the Founding Fathers enumerated in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The 1st Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; of the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
There are many quotes from the Founding Fathers that express their strong beliefs in the necessity of the freedom of speech. Here is one from Washington:
If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. - George Washington
Franklin identified one of the first steps in the overthrow of any nation: the suppression of free speech.
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. - Benjamin Franklin
In my mind, this sparks suspicion regarding SOPA. Is the motivation to pass this absolutely positive? Or is this an attack at American liberty disguised in good intentions? Despite the fact that free speech is an indispensable aspect of any free nation, there must be boundaries. “Wait a minute,” you interject. “How can there be boundaries on a freedom?” Let me explain.
Freedom = Responsibility
For every freedom, there is a corresponding responsibility that you must hold in order to maintain that freedom. For example, in order to maintain the freedom of religion, only religions that tolerate other religions can be allowed. True tolerance does not tolerate intolerance. One may exercise his freedom of religion as long as he also let others exercise their freedom of religion. One may strongly believe that his religion is the only true one, but he is still not free to force others to conform to his beliefs.
The responsibility accompanying the freedom of speech
There is a responsibility given to everyone with the freedom of speech. Free speech is protected with the expectation that it will not induce harm to any person. Because of this, slanderous, libelous, or treasonous speech is not protected by one's freedom of speech. Often forums will have “Terms of service” that all poster's must agree to. Even though members in the discussions on those forums may present conflicting opinions, they are still free to say what they want as long as their comments abide by the “Terms of service”. Usually, however, the moderator will remove harmful or offensive comments because they breached the “Terms of service”.
The American Terms of Service
Although there are no so-called “Terms of Service” in the First Amendment, there are unspoken expectations that all free speech should be civil and respectful to others. I'm afraid many American citizens don't understand this fact, or ignore it completely. As soon as Americans begin to “breach the Terms of Service”, the government will try to stop it. However, the approach the government takes often not only punishes the perpetrators, but also punishes many innocent people exercising their right of free speech with all civility and respect. This is what we see with SOPA. Piracy is not protected by free speech because it is illegal. SOPA wants to address that issue and stop online piracy (it's in the name!), but if passed and enforced, it will over-correct and potentially punish the innocent.
Some people ignore the freedom of speech and call those who oppose their worldview guilty of “hate speech”. “Hate crimes” legislation legally enforces this idea by preventing certain individuals from condemning things like the homosexual lifestyle. It's just fine for someone to say that they believe lifestyles like that are wrong, and proceed to share their reasoning supporting their conclusion. Others don't have to agree with you, but that's because it is free speech! Legislation that forces Americans to speak nothing other than a particular worldview is antithetical to free speech. It is stifling to everyone's rights.
Sometimes those who critically analyze elected officials are attacked by others. However, it is good that varying opinions of public figures are shared.
To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic, but is morally treasonable to the American public. - Theodore Roosevelt
Baseless, slanderous accusations are intended to do nothing but damage someone's reputation, and as such should not be protected by free speech. However, sharing honest, well-meant criticism is acceptable.
When you get to Internet-level censorship, however, you are playing a whole new game. I believe things like pornography should not be allowed on the Internet. Here's my reasoning behind that particular deduction: there are many statistics that show how morally detrimental pornography can be. When morals are loose, the strong nuclear family unit becomes rarer. Instead, the country is plagued with broken families, broken hearts, and STDs. If you don't have strong families, you don't have a strong society. If you don't have a strong society, then you have a weak, vulnerable country. Therefore, I believe pornography is seriously damaging and consequently should not be protected under freedom of speech.
My conviction poses a serious problem, though. I sincerely believe that it would be the right thing to censor pornography, but someone else could just as sincerely believe that Internet-level censorship is never the right thing. Why should my opinion hold precedence in determining if something should be censored? If anything on the Internet could be censored based on one person's discretion, there could be serious infringements on the freedom of speech, not merely the censorship of content overstepping its bounds.
I am going to propose a compromise. Censorship should be done at a family level as well as at the discretion of the owner of the website instead of at a national level. I have written an extension for Opera called PageScrubber, that blocks obscene language. It also has the option to block entire pages containing a certain number of bad words, if you want. There are other extensions for Opera related to this. If you prefer to use another browser, there are almost definitely extensions for them too. Internet Explorer has options integrated that allow you to restrict what kind of content is permitted to be rendered. No solution is as complete as I'd like, but then again, it's a compromise.
Another thing I'd suggest doing is installing an ad-blocking extension. Ads may contain material parents would deem inappropriate for their children. Most importantly, I believe parents should teach their children about discretion so that the children know how to respond when they encounter inappropriate content. It's inevitable that they will encounter it, so it is essential to teach discretion.
This was a difficult subject to address because there are so many if...thens, except whens..., and only ifs. I may have implied something I didn't mean to, so if you are confused about something I said, then drop me a comment and I'll do my best to clarify. If you have anything to add to what I said, or you disagree with one of my ideas, then don't hesitate to say so below. After all, you have the right of free speech!
Photo credit: Katie G. Meyer
Posted January 2, 2012 at 11:54AM by Eli Mitchell in Politics, SOPA, free speech with 0 responses