Our First Amendment Responsibility

What two young people can teach us about exercising free speech in the digital age.

Americans tend to be fiercely protective of and willing to exercise our First Amendment rights— to speak, to pray, to gather in the name of causes we believe in. What we don’t hear as much about is First Amendment responsibility. During the past several weeks, a young Swedish teenager and climate activist, Greta Thunberg, gave us a subtle example of what this responsibility looks like.

“Yes, I write my own speeches,” she said on Facebook, “but since I know that what I say is going to reach many, many people, I often ask for input. I also have a few scientists that I frequently ask for help on how to express certain complicated matters. I want everything to be absolutely correct so that I don’t spread incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.”

At 16 years old, Thunberg exhibits a profound respect for the power of words. She understands that because the universe has put a megaphone in front of her mouth, she needs to be very careful about what comes out of it. She knows what she doesn’t know. She appreciates that she might want to ask a couple of experienced experts to read over her speeches, as well as an extra set of eyes to check for spelling, grammar, and any nuances among complicated terms or theories. She is being responsible with what she understands is a sacred privilege – to say what is on her mind and in her heart.

If only every person with a Facebook or Twitter account was so prudent.

We have more platforms available today than ever before on which to practice our right to free speech. Before the Internet and social media, the best and perhaps only way to get one’s ideas into public view was to write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper or national publication. Back then, ideas were subject to review by at least one other person before being given the benefit of ink and paper. Now, there is no editorial board; there’s often not even spell check. Even at the highest levels of government, shooting off at the mouth is held up as an example of courageous authenticity. The rock on which Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram rest is the collective certainty that we can all say to a wide audience whatever we want, however we want to say it. This relatively new phenomenon—the freedom of the digital revolution—is generally accepted as a positive development for our speech rights. Yet, as with all growth, there are accompanying pains.

Social media makes each user an editorial board of one. This is an adult-sized responsibility that today’s young tweeters and posters probably do not appreciate. As a society—and as parents and teachers—we need to teach kids to drive the Internet like we teach them to drive cars. If we don’t, then many of them will crash in ways they likely do not have the foresight to imagine.

Take this recent example. Carson King is the Iowa football fan who held up a sign during a game asking for beer money and ended up raising almost $3 million for a local children’s hospital. When the local newspaper went to cover this feel-good story, the reporter did a background check on King and uncovered some nasty tweets he posted as a 16-year-old, high school sophomore.

Then, we watched Mr. King crash. During what should have been a shining moment for him, he was called to account, in the most public and humiliating way possible, for exercising his First Amendment rights before he was wise enough to appreciate the consequences. In another era, the world would never know about his youthful ignorance and indiscretion. But, alas, he is among the first generation of humans to have their teenage years documented for all time. His is a cautionary tale, and the lesson is this: you are free to say, write, and post whatever you wish, but you are accountable for whatever comes of it tomorrow, next year, or even thirty years from now.

We can lament that as a sad farewell to a bygone time when adolescent mistakes were anonymous and forgotten, or we can use it as an opportunity to teach responsibility not just to teenagers but to adults as well. Young Thunberg is astute enough to realize the harm that could come from, as she says, “spreading incorrect facts, or things that can be misunderstood.” So, too, then should be every Tweeter with  scores and scores of followers—whose words, in some cases, have the power of societal and political consequences. The least we can learn from Thunberg’s activism and King’s altruism is that one is never too young or too obscure to make headlines through social media.

Since King’s tweets were unearthed, he has humbly acknowledged his mistakes and asked for forgiveness. Fortunately, he seems to have been forgiven. There has been widespread agreement in the media, both conventional and social, that he has compensated for whatever harm he might have caused as a kid with his philanthropic spirit as an adult and, maybe more importantly, by serving as a reminder of the perils of carelessly exercising free speech.

In an interesting twist, the reporter who originally uncovered King’s unsavory tweets had his own questionable Twitter history—an important reminder to practice humility as we collectively adjust to the cultural change brought on by social media. We are all human, and we all say things that we wish we could take back or revise. We can agree to be held accountable without lapsing into finger-pointing and stone-throwing judgement.

Some will say this is an argument for censorship and political correctness. It’s not. It’s a suggestion for discipline and self-control when speaking to the anonymous, digital audience. It’s so easy to forget the listener when one posts from the solitude of a tiny, handheld screen. And it’s easy to underestimate the very long, perhaps permanent, shelf life of online musings. So before tapping “post,” we would all benefit from pausing and thinking about the examples of Greta Thunberg and Carson King.

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Sarah Weeldreyer

Sarah Weeldreyer is the Business Manager of the Washington Monthly.