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Examining Cases on the Internet: Freedom of Speech

written by: Aaron R.•edited by: J. F. Amprimoz•updated: 5/20/2011

Freedom of Speech is a crucial right for any free society. Unfortunately, the Internet tends to raise some interesting questions and objections when it comes to laws and rights. We'll take a look at the way that Freedom of Speech has developed through the new communication options offered online.

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    Quick Notes

    For a topic as wide and important as Freedom of Speech, note that I'll have a fairly American view of the concept. That can't be helped, since trying to take a global view will be quite difficult and would just lead to a fragmented article. Also note that I am not a lawyer and that this article will merely attempt to summarize existing cases. If you have any legal concerns, please consult with a qualified lawyer before carrying out any action.

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    Freedom of Speech - A Quick Fact Check

    Freedom of Speech Online - Understand Your Actual Rights Before I delve into individual cases, it is necessary to dispel some of the confusion around freedom of speech issues. Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment merely limit the government's ability to restrict speech. A private organization, business or individual can limit your freedom of speech within their own realms (as long as it doesn't fall under some type of law). For a timely example, it is not a First Amendment issue that Juan Williams was fired by NPR for his comments on Fox News. Private, and even government, organizations can make their own policy and fire someone for making statements that are not in line with their mission statement (even more so when the person is effectively acting as a representative).

    Along those lines, while the government is not able to restrain free speech, you are still responsible for anything that you say. I have every right to say whatever I wish about my editor, but I have to live with the consequences of insulting my boss and creating a hostile workplace (Is that the only thing stopping you Aaron? -Ed.).

    For another timely example, there is not anything necessarily illegal about an assistant district attorney who launches a bit of a crusade against a gay college student (as long as he steers clear of making threats). There's also nothing stopping someone from pointing out that it seems unprofessional and creepy. The First Amendment allows one to speak their mind without being arrested: It doesn't guarantee you will keep your job if what you are saying becomes a national embarrassment to your employer. You have to be willing to accept the consequences of your statements, whether they're online or not.

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    Freedom of Speech - The Internet as a Medium

    Probably the single most important ruling for Freedom of Speech on the Internet is Reno vs. ACLU. If you want to read the Supreme Court's official findings and don't mind a lot of legalese, then check this link from the Cornell law database. The summary is that the Supreme Court found that the Internet was a "protected" form of communication in roughly the same way that a book was. It had the added benefit of additional protection, since it was an on-demand method of communication. For example, television broadcasts are subjected to additional regulation because anyone might stumble onto the channel. That's far less likely online, when you have to physically choose to go to an address (presumably with some knowledge of what's there).

    The exact case found that the government could not use criminal punishments against people for supplying adult content to a minor. The decision itself was struck down because it would require a large amount of legal content to be suppressed without sufficient reason. This recognition came early in the life of the Internet and cements it as a legitimate form of communication eligible for the same protection as all other forms of speech.

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    Internet Cases on Freedom of Speech - Conclusions

    The key thing to note about the above judgement is that the Internet is a form of communication and publication. This means that rules on Libel and Harrassment are still in play. While cases against online content are rare, they are still a possibility. Note this very recent case against a Facebook "troll." Allegedly, he targeted Facebook groups that were set up as memorials and harrassed grieving family members. This fell under UK law for malicious communication and he may face jail time. You can read more from the BBC article. As I said, the Internet is not the wild west. You can be tracked down and punished for unlawful communication online.

    And, while other countries enjoy a certain amount of free speech, it is not as powerful a legal principal as in the US. A law against "malicious communication" would be at odds with the First Amendment, as would the "Hate Speech" legislation adopted by many other countries. While someone might be free from prosecution in a US court, their international travel and business plans could become complicated if they are known to be involved with groups that promote radical action, for instance.

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    The Never Ending Battles Over Internet Freedom of Speech

    Of course, talking about legal questions, free speech, and in particular, the Internet, is chasing a fast moving target.

    An open case of interest involves the popular "Officer Bubbles" videos on Youtube. Toronto Police Constable Adam Josephs was made famous when he was caught on video threatening to arrest a young woman protester for blowing bubbles which lead to the parody videos along with some mean-spirited comments. Josephs filed a defamation case against YouTube for the lucrative sum of $1.25 million. He is also suing to get the identities of the video and comment posters for reasons he has yet to explain. YouTube took down the videos, but they have begun to reappear, posted by a new account. Toronto Lawyer David Shiller has offered to defend the commenters and posters for free.

    This could be a defining legal precedent on what the boundaries of a citizenry's right to public comment and parody really are, or one side could balk and just call it a day. What is certain is that Officer Bubbles had been essentially forgotten until news of the lawsuit broke, at which point he, and his co-workers, again became the targets of public ire and in some cases vitriol.

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    Internet Freedom of Speech Can Make for Hot Water

    Obviously, the best way to avoid problems is not make enemies. The Golden Rule applies here. For those momentary lapses of kindness that assail us from time to time, remember that the Internet is subject to the same rules and regulations as everything else.

    If you are guilty of defamation online, then you can be sued for it. A death threat online will land someone in jail much as it would if said out loud. If someone else sees a chance to make a quick buck, you might get sued, and even if you are in the right and win, that can be expensive and bad for your reputation. The Internet is really not that different from anything else. It's effectively viewed by the courts as an ever-expanding library, and authors area always responsible for what they write. Just keep this in mind when you're online. Your anonymity is never assured.

    Image Credit - Wikipedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:American_flag_waving.jpg