New media: The new frontier for free speech

FSM Sather Gate Goines Children's Crusade

In 1964, Mario Savio led the fight for free expression of political opinion in public space. Today, one can experience the direct impact of the movement’s legacy between the trees of Lower Sproul. Rows of student tables, religious figures with loudspeakers, and non-affiliated groups freely perform, express and sell their opinions in public space. But 50 years after the Free Speech Movement, how does contemporary society compare to Savio’s dream?

Our world is increasingly defined by technological intermediaries, simply “because the internet,” as Childish Gambino puts it. A hyperreal communications platform has been formed in which one may espouse opinions anonymously and instantaneously, with the potential for virality. In relation to free speech, this has proved contentious and many attempts have been made to govern this new frontier.

In the States, the NSA has been collecting and monitoring vast quantities of telecommunications data on the basis of maintaining national security. Civic engagement and protests around the world are enhanced by the soapbox of social media, which in turn has been the target of censorship. In the face of injustice, global movements of protest and community have left their imprint on the Internet; as technology progresses, the ties between people, their governments and nations become increasingly mutually reinforcing.

Earlier in September, Chancellor Dirks’ call for civility in honor of the Free Speech Movement’s anniversary sparked outrage due to concerns that “civility” could potentially be coded as an ominous regulation on free speech. His reasoning was not impractical in hoping to foster a safe campus environment, yet the backlash was great and immediate. The issue is the basic nature of order and freedom; order directs public discourse and behavior, yet it must also allow for the freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment.

On Oct. 3, the Berkeley College Republicans protested the FSM’s 50th Anniversary celebrations with the slogan “Free speech does not equal comfortable speech.” Their premise was that campus representatives had infringed upon free rights in recent years. Examples include the ASUC ban on the term “illegal alien” and its condemnation of disrespectful speech.

However, an ongoing federal case contributes to the argument that the first amendment does not, in fact, protect all speech. Elonis v. United States explores the threats that Anthony D. Elonis posted on Facebook against his estranged wife, in the form of rap lyrics. He claims his lyrics were simply a form of creative expression, which led the court to the question of intent. The lower courts said that any “reasonable person” could view Elonis’ comments as a serious intention to inflict bodily harm. They acknowledge the difficulty in determining the context for online conversations without nonverbal cues such as body language or tone of voice, thus the difficulty for determining intention. This is one of many examples revealing that the lack of human context makes for difficult governance over online modes of communication. The Supreme Court will hear the case and consider the issue of free speech and new media later this year.

The goal of the free speech movement was to keep the practice of our first amendment alive. Yet the balancing act between order and freedom of speech has been increasingly difficult to maintain, especially with the advent of the Internet. The issue now is governance over this new public space and how well our constitutional rights will be protected. Like Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, the online free speech movement contributes to the continuous interpretation and application of national values. It is in this vein that American history has been and continues to be a series of free speech movements. #fsm50


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