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How Freedom of Speech Relates to Democracy

As every American should know, and every international citizen has most likely been told, the First Amendment of the constitution, in simple terms, protects our rights to speech, press and religion. No man or woman can be prosecuted on the grounds of their words, except if they are intended to incite violence. The First Amendment allows Americans the freedom to express concerns, articulate methods of improvement and call out behavior not in line with their personal ideals. It also allows for every citizen, regardless of education level, past experience or certification to make their voice audible to others. There exist numerous talk television shows, magazines, web blogs, entertainers, politicians and ordinary citizens who express their opinions on a wide range of topics. Although there can be drawbacks, and severe repercussions to constant torrent of unfiltered opinions, it is worthwhile and cultivates democratic values in every level of society, every branch of government and the mind of every citizen.

The average American teenager spends seven hours on a screen, every day. That is forty-nine hours a week, or 2555 hours in a year. Over a hundred days out of a year are spent on continuous screen time. Teenagers are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of social media posts. On social media sites, such as Instagram and Tik Tok, users can post videos of any interest they may have, which often include their reflections on current events, politics, and the general state of the world. With relatively loose controls over what type of content is allowed, an endless spectrum of opinions are posted daily. American teenagers spend a little under a third of their year exposed to these. Physical health concerns of too much screen time aside, having a forum in which exposure to more than one way of thinking is possible, is of immeasurable value to creating an empathetic and accepting society. There are ceaseless debates over the place of the First Amendment in social media, what it should protect, and what it should not. Although hate speech or any intent to incite violence against a person or group should be censored, providing people with an outlet to express and to cultivate opinions independent from what their parents or communities believe fosters democratic values.

Since the passage of the First Amendment in 1791, the journey to true freedom of speech has been a long and winding one. It has not always protected the rights of unpopular and marginalized opinions, but rather of well-represented ones. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for equal rights, he was called an inciter of violence and imprisoned. When Susan B. Anthony fought for suffrage and other women’s rights, she was called down for her radical opinions. The freedom to believe a person can impact change is the most powerful freedom of all. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony fought for their freedom of speech, but had the freedom to believe they could impact change. This is a freedom that allows the mind space and protection to pursue its own path, address its own issues and work towards crafting a solution. Knowing you are given the right to speak freely of your conditions, advocate for change and discuss your discontent is a pillar of modern American society. As a right consistently taken for granted, it is important to recognize the battles that others fight daily in order to ensure it is available to all.

As is characteristic of a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to advocate for their interests. They are those in power who others trust to understand and share their concerns, and to know how to best address them. Our system of democracy is impossible without representatives being able to adequately understand the people they are representing. All forms of expression contribute to general understanding and so enable change to occur. Democracy is regarded to describe a system of government by the people, of the people and for the people. No true democracy exists where the opinions of the people are silenced, where their interests are not represented and where their beliefs are ignored, either in the name of malice or ignorance. Freedom to say, write and believe what they will, and to share those beliefs with others is what allows American society to function. While these opinions may contradict one another, the only way to achieve a true democracy is to allow them to be expressed in every format. Across every level of society, the expression of opinion fosters democratic values.

About the Author:

Harper Lindsay is a rising sophomore student. She was elected as vice president of her sophomore class and has a passion for Model UN and cross country. Harper is the founder of Food For Fidos, a nonprofit organization which contributes to the amount of dog food in Boston food banks, to support people caring for their pets throughout difficult times.

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