Respect the Freedom of Words

Sep 20, 2017

Sawyer Ryan, Pepperdine student

Social media has become an increasingly popular outlet for people in this day and age to express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings about a variety of items. Most posts are usually harmless but there have also been some instances where issues of legitimate intentions to harm or danger society have been stated. While there have been few people who have both made serious statements threatening harm or danger and then actually carried out their harmful intentions, there have been cases recently where after harm was caused, the social media posts of the suspect have been revealing in their motivations.

This past summer, a man by the name of James Hodgkinson shot at multiple politicians and wounded several, including Republican Congressman, Steve Scalise1. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that Hodgkinson was an emphatic supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders and used his social media to make posts that supported many left-wing ideas as well as some content that was anti-Republican. Posts were made regarding Hodgkinson's frustration with President Trump, and other Republican politicians, including a comic depicting a recent speech made by Steve Scalise. Hodgkinson captioned the comic remarking his belief that Scalise should lose his job and should not have received a raise. Sometime later Hodgkinson himself updated his Facebook to read that he had left his job. While there was obvious bad-mouthing found on his social media, there were no reports of serious claims made to harm anyone, and yet that is what he ended up doing. But the posts themselves are like many posts seen on social media today.

People get heated about politics and share their thoughts and views, sometimes using more aggressive language because they are just so frustrated.

So far it is hard to make a case for investigating every threat made on social media because most of them are just expressions of free speech, protected by the First Amendment. There is more fake news, heated posts, and empty threats than ever, but to limit the expression of free speech might just incite more frustration and possibly even violence if it is seriously monitored any more than it already is. Even in the case of Hodgkinson, someone who actually did go out and harm people, there is no concrete evidence found on his social media that clearly states he was planning to do this, all his posts were merely the same kind of frustrated political content that everyone sees on their feeds.

While the protection of the people of the United States should always be a priority for law enforcement or agencies like the FBI, to follow through on every threat made online is not going to make much difference in what happens. People who see the posts would most likely address the more specific threats that are clearly worded. If a post read something seriously threatening, most people would callthe police and then an investigation could be carried out. But most people today seem to have a clear understanding of what is just an empty threat versus what could actually be harmful. People that tend to actually carry out attacks are usually smart enough to not post about their plans and often times they even go under the radar and avoid social media. While of course, that may not be the case in all instances, common sense makes us believe this to be very probable most of the time.

Because there are few clear cases where crimes are or could be prevented because of posts on social media, it is hard to defend stricter monitoring over lack of free speech. In the case of Schenck v US, the danger was in that the pamphlets printed argued against the draft, and this became a matter of interfering with the US and its efforts in the war in the eyes of the Supreme Court. The Espionage Act essentially made it legal to stop the printing or dispersion of documents that interfered with or tried to obstruct the draft as well as fining and giving jail time to people who did so3. But this act within itself is stepping over the line of the First Amendment, which is supposed to protect the free speech of US citizens. While I am personally conflicted by this as I support the loyalty to the decisions made by the American government whether they be good or bad for me personally, I also recognize why there are so many problems with some of the laws and decisions made. Maybe today, social media is just the outlet we must use to express our opinions, the words themselves pose no real threat or harm unless acted upon, but it is not necessarily fair for words alone to be given the depth we might see in them because they alone are up to each individual to subjectively interpret. While I personally would like to support monitoring because it could promote safety and more thought into what does get posted online, it is hard to argue with the very First Amendment to our Constitution. The freedom to say what you want to say is one of the most logical things about our country and while there are plenty of terrible things said or posted, you have to hope that people will respect the freedom they have been given and use their words wisely.


Sawyer Ryan, a student in Jon Pfeiffer's Fall 2017 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the prompt:In Schenck v US, the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech could be restricted if the words spoken or printed represented to society a "clear and present danger." We live in a society in which our thoughts can be read instantly and out of context i.e. tweets, ig posts, FB posts, etc. These posts, even if said jokingly, have potential to seriously scare people. At what point should social media interaction (if at all) be monitored, or have we grown so used to #FakeNews that no such filter is needed?

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