The internet is the First Amendment

An important Adam Liptak story in today’s New York Times examines the American exceptionalism of our First Amendment as contrasted with Canada’s frightening prosecution of Macleans’s magazine for daring to print opinions that complaining Muslims found offensive.

Our risk in the world today is that we will be reduced to the lowest common denominator of speech as dictated by the worst regime. Libel tourism is endangering the publication of ideas and reporting that might cost financial damages under other countries’ wrong-way libel laws. Google censors its search results in China rather than exerting its moral influence there — don’t be evil — in favor of free speech.

Except there’s this: The internet is the First Amendment brought to life. Our First Amendment argues that it is both undesirable and impossible to contain speech and the marketplace of ideas. The internet enforces that idea. You simply can’t contain speech on it. Oh, governments will try. And those who favor rule by the offended will try to make them. And companies have become accomplices to regimes’ crimes against speech by handing over speakers’ identities (see Yahoo in China and Google in India). These are, of course, the areas where anonymity has its place (the ethic of identity in these cases is protecting the identity of speakers).

So we can treat the First Amendment and the moral of speech as exceptionalism, because it has been. Or we can recognize that the internet offers the openness of speech to anyone anywhere, though not without risk, and we who have this privilege can make it our mission to educate others about the inevitability and benefits of free speech.

  • As in other recent posts, you underline the essentially political nature of much of today’s engineering on the Internet. If one cares about free speech, you have a choice: You can become a politician or lawyer and fight for the law or its enforcement — or you can build systems that embody and make inevitable the ideal of free speech.

    In “The Little Prince,” a king declares that the sun rises and sets daily *because* he commanded it to do so. Of course, his power is confirmed by simple observation. One day, we’ll be able to say: “There is free speech because the constitution commands it to be so.” But, the reality may be that we have free speech because technology has made it to difficult to restrict speech… Engineers will have finished the job that the politicians began.

    On the Internet, engineering is politics.

    bob wyman

  • Jeff, how do you reconcile today’s column with Google’s record in cooperating with the Chinese when it comes to internet censorship? I agree with you that Google has done many great things and is in many ways an admirable company, but their willingness——hell, eagerness!—–to help a repressive government control internet access on its 1+ billion citizens is a very black mark against Google.

  • This is the most important thing you have ever posted and I agree completely.

    Our country, the USA, is still the only country that constitutionally protects free speech. We should set a shining example by keeping the internet free from speech moderation.

    We should protect those whose speech we find offensive to us, even abhorrent. That includes most pornographers, hate mongers and politcal commentators.

    It is not possible for a government to fairly judge where a line of “acceptable speech” can be drawn. That’s why the circus in Canada is so horrifying.

    The only way to protect our speech as individuals, is to protect all speech.

  • Tim

    Doesn’t the NYT article suggest that the world is questioning the USA’s support for free speech?

    Please don’t listen to the Times! The irony of that newspaper voicing doubts about free speech is too much to bear.

    The First Amendment is one of the great accomplishments of the USA.

  • Tim

    By the way, the Canada case is getting very little attention inside Canada, even though it is a newsworthy story. Canadian journalists are often very individually talented (and regularly poached by Americans) but as a group, they are terrible, chastened SHEEP.

  • janice


  • janice

    I meant Amen, Jeff!

    Not that I agree about the journalistic sheep. I don’t know nothin about sheep.

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  • From the AP: PARIS — France is joining at least five other countries where Internet service providers block access to child pornography and to content linked to terrorism and racial hatred, the French interior minister said Tuesday. … A blacklist will be compiled based on input from Internet users who flag sites containing offensive material, Interior Minister Michel Alliot-Marie said.
    June 10, 2008 at 2:36 PM EDT


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  • “Help, help! I’m being oppressed!”

    I think it’s odd that the framers felt the need to put in a 1st Amendment at all. Not being able to follow a path of history without its inclusion in the Constitution, we can’t know what the US would be like today if they hadn’t, but if, Jeff, you’re right, and free speech is inevitable, why institutionalize and politicize it in the first place?

    I’m not at odds with the sentiment of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, I just think that it was created out of a collective paranoia developed by a comparison to Great Britain’s Magna Carta. Politically, Madison pushed the amendments as a means for getting elected and single-handedly had to bully Congress into considering them. Nothing against him, just against reactionary and fear-based decisions.

    Again, if its true that free speech is inevitable, why put the protection thereof in a government’s very framework. People on both sides of the strict vs. loose interpretation debate (i.e. everybody) will then assail the justification of the idea and the definition of all words used in its codification.

    And they have, haven’t they? The argument shifted, when there really shouldn’t be an argument in the first place, from the obviously well-intended idea to protect people from undue governmental interference and censorship to whether or not the words of the enacted amendment mean there should be a line or not and where that line is and oh my goodness Madison couldn’t’ve meant to protect Eminem!

    Longwindedly, we don’t know how our society, our culture, our country would’ve dealt with Mr. Mathers at this point in time if in that point in time the new US federal government hadn’t made a concession to some states and federally codified some knee-jerk security concerns. I take issue with you, Jeff, that the amendment implies they felt it impossible to contain free speech. Indeed, the very fact they felt it necessary to codify it implies that they felt it likely the freedom would be impinged upon at some point.

    Not to get your goat, but can you imagine a world in which censorship would be warranted? What then?


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