Freedom of Speech and Misinformation
By Emmett Pennington-Guthrie
Free speech is one of the most valued things in the United States, enshrined by the first amendment of the Constitution and still protected to this day.
Of course, there are a handful of limitations to what you can say and do with your speech.
Inciting crimes, defamation, fraud, obscenity, fighting words, threats, and child pornography are the main categories of speech that are limited by law. 
However, there is still some controversy over whether some things currently unrestricted should or shouldn’t be left open to be said, particularly in today’s world.
With social media giving virtually anyone a platform and chronic political division being something of a norm, it’s easy to see how certain opinions or statements can get shared that others might want banned.
Rajen Patel, sophomore education major, stated that particularly with regards to social media, he believes individuals should be able to express whatever they like, except for statements that could cause harm. 
Patel elaborated that while there are things people say online that he doesn’t disagree with, he feels “they can say what they want to say… they have the right to say it, that doesn’t mean they’re right. If you listen to that, that is your life, and you do what you want to do.” 
Where it becomes tricky, Patel said, is in “figuring out what is a threat and what is just some individual spouting nonsense.” 
Kenden Staten, freshmen nursing major, agreed that harmful or threatening language is where he draws the line on what should be allowed as free speech. 
Staten felt that anything that might threaten a life should not be permitted and highlighted not only direct threats but also indirect threats, such as intentionally triggering suicidal thoughts in another person online. 
Vaccine misinformation, another hot topic online, is something Staten targeted in saying that spreading intentionally misleading or outright false information that could cause someone to turn away a potentially lifesaving vaccine is something he also feels should not be protected as free speech. 
Of course, social media platforms all have their own rules for what can and cannot be said on their sites.
That said, topics such as vaccine misinformation find themselves easily propagating online, with the World Health Organization even identifying false information online as a major threat to public health. 
Other countries such as France, Germany, and even Russia have passed laws against COVID-19 misinformation, with Germany threatening fines for social media sites that do not remove misinformation within 24 hours. 
Limiting what is considered free speech may be a tough sell in the U.S., however, where the first amendment stops direct government censorship of the internet.
This leaves the question then, what are social media companies doing to prevent misinformation.
Across platforms like Facebook and Twitter, there have been removals of misinformation spreaders, as well as warning labels being attached to posts. However, many platforms have not been openly transparent about their actions, making it hard to see what is being censored, if at all, and how. 
Warning labels on online posts are one thing Colby Villa, freshman digital media and design major, believes are an effective means of countering fake news without limiting anyone’s speech. 
Villa believes it is important to have free conversation, emphasizing that we should not be preventing people from saying what they want, but that at the same time he realizes the dangers of deliberate misinformation and the impacts it can have. 
“The idea of a fact-checker makes sense. Spreading falsehoods is a big problem on the internet.” 
Content warnings of different sorts might then be a solid option to neuter misinformation or other sorts of material that could be offensive.
- Permissible restrictions on expression. (n.d.). Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/First-Amendment/Permissible-restrictions-on-expression
- Interview with Rajen Patel, 4/21/22.
- Interview with Kenden Staten, 4/21/22.
- Yang, A. et al. (2021, August 30). The battleground of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on Facebook: Fact checkers vs. misinformation spreaders. Harvard Kennedy School. https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/the-battleground-of-covid-19-vaccine-misinformation-on-facebook-fact-checkers-vs-misinformation-spreaders/
- Mills, M. and Sivela, J. (2021, February 17). Should spreading anti-vaccine misinformation be criminalised? Thebmj. https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n272
- Krishnan, N. et al. (2021, December 15). Research note: Examining how various social media platforms have responded to COVID-19 misinformation. Harvard Kennedy School. https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/research-note-examining-how-various-social-media-platforms-have-responded-to-covid-19-misinformation/
- Interview with Colby Villa, 4/21/22.