Does the First Amendment Protect Lies?

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By Zlata Shmarina

When the first amendment was written and adopted on December 15, 1791, one of its main purposes was to protect freedom of speech and the freedom of press for as long as the country shall stand. For hundreds of years now, that law has been upheld and respected by governing bodies to allow people to exercise these basic rights. But as the world progresses into a rapidly-changing culture focused primarily on technology and consumerism, the once easily-understood amendment is finding its way into a gray area of the internet.

 Over the years, people have been accused of defamation and inciting violent incidents over the internet through their speech and the ideas they choose to spread to the rest of the world through personal media sources, regardless of their authenticity. This has caused an uproar of uncertainty and confusion over what should be allowed to be shared to millions, if not billions, of people around the globe. After all, misinformation can be spread, false narratives can be adopted, and violence can ensue. 

One such recent case involves a known conspiracy theorist named Alex Jones, mainly known for his website ‘Infowars’ and the theories he spread about the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting allegedly being a hoax. Promoting these theories as facts, he and his followers have repeatedly badgered the families of the victims of the shooting, harassing them non-stop about the deaths of their supposedly non-existent loved ones. 

Due to this, many people have been calling for his content to be taken down and censored. But where do we draw the line on who we censor and who we allow to stay on the internet? This is a question many Americans are asking as the spread of misinformation keeps growing with the size and access to the internet around the world.

Looking at history, particularly the human rights movement in the 60s, black people were told that they were wrong for bringing up legitimate issues and injustices that had the power to defame police departments, educational institutions, and people involved within the criminal justice system. At the time, many people weren’t in support of this movement, wanting to hide away the social and racial issues plaguing the country.

Alex Jones takes the stand during his defamation trial.

Although Alex Jones spreading a harmful hoax and the human rights movement are based on drastically different opinions, the point stays the same. In both instances, a group of people believed that a majority of society was wrong in their beliefs so they tried to change their minds. If we look at the punishment we gave to Alex Jones, should we have also charged Martin Luther King Jr. with a one billion dollar fine because he was fighting for something that was socially unacceptable at the time? Could this fine included with public censorship prevent others from speaking out in times of societal confusion or anger? Similarly in the #MeToo movement, women coming out with sexual assault accusations could have been charged for defamation if there weren’t proper investigations. So will these charges silence our future generations from speaking out about truly important issues, afraid that their voices won’t be taken into consideration and they will be fined or censored?

We enter a slippery slope once we take away basic rights from those we disagree with, but grant them to those that fit within our own beliefs. But with so much dismay over the irregularity of the internet, it is clear that the world needs a way to filter information. A possible solution to issues like this is to employ a system of revision for websites once you reach a specific amount of traffic on your content. The revisions could be done either by a board of elected officials, a randomly selected jury of people, or an educated panel of people that can review and fact check the website.

Another solution is to automatically put disclaimers on all websites that have controversial opinions in addition to a few links counteracting the arguments made. This way people can make an objective decision without having to do extensive research. Neither of these are perfect solutions, but they get us a step closer to discerning the truth from lies and propaganda.  We must remember, especially in a time of societal and political division, that taking away the rights of another human doesn’t get anyone closer to winning or proving a point, it only limits our own democracy and goes against our Founding Fathers’ beliefs. To censor someone is not to act for the greater good, but to cause more nuance and confusion around who is censored in future times.

We don’t help anyone by suppressing each other’s voices, even if we don’t like what is said. While defamation still needs to be prosecuted when it is fit, such as Alex Jones’s case, we mustn’t stop protecting the first right that was agreed upon. As Harry S. Truman put it in his special message to the Congress on the Internal Security of the United States in 1950, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”