The Complexities of Freedom of Speech

The Complexities of Freedom of Speech

Dr. Joseph Russomanno, Professor – Cronkite School, Arizona State University

Written by Shahid Meighan

A fiercely protected tenet of democracy in the United States, freedom of speech is a distinctly American concept, according to Professor Joseph Russomanno. Russomanno’s academic interests are specifically on the rights and obligations of the First Amendment and its philosophical, political, and historical origins in American history and democracy. 

“Freedom of speech in America is a truly American value. Yes, there is speech freedom in other countries, but nowhere like there is in the United States,” said Russomanno during his talk. While emphasizing that other countries do indeed have “speech freedom”, Russomanno described the speech freedoms that Americans have come to know is “uniquely American.”

However, Russomanno also contended that the interpretation of the First Amendment by the American court system has allowed for extreme – and in many cases, hateful – examples of free speech to be protected. Russomanno cited the situation with the Westboro Baptist Church back in 2014 and the resulting lawsuit that protected the churchgoers right to protest and use disparaging language towards the LGBTQ community. 

“The Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of the church. 8-1,” Russomanno explained, pointing out that Justice Samuel Alito was the lone dissenter. 

“Eight justices are saying the First Amendment protects what they do. We may not like the way they do it. We don’t like the words they use. It is vile and reprehensible. But this is what the First Amendment stands for.”

In addition to the extremes that can come with our First Amendment rights, Russomanno also introduced a tenet put forth by Timothy Wu of Columbia University. Titled Is the First Amendment Obsolete?, Wu puts forth in a series of essays that the First Amendment gives the same protections to “bad” ideas as it does “good” ideas. While Wu ultimately comes to the conclusion that the First Amendment is not “obsolete”, society has changed drastically in regard to the flow of information and availability of speech. The attention of listeners and readers is “scarce”, said Wu, “yielding challenges for which the First Amendment is unprepared.”

However, even with the potential room for exploitation and weaknesses within the First Amendment, Russomanno explained that the architects of the constitution wanted to create a “marketplace of ideas” so that “ideas will compete, the cream will rise to the top, and ultimately, and society will benefit.” According to Russomanno, they also understood the importance of a free press in being a type of watchdog for government affairs.

“Think how ingenious that was, or how incredible that was that the founders of the government shackled themselves. They said, we can have, we can create this in a way to have immense power, but we’re not going to. We’re going to curb our power. Because as smart as we are, maybe the next generation won’t be so good, or the generation after that, and so on.”

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