The past few years added new urgency to the free speech debate. Pre-pandemic, it might have centered around a controversial speaker being disinvited from a public university or other comparatively more benign topics.
Today the discussion has become more explicitly political and at times existential, involving questions such as, “Did social media platforms infringe on President Trump’s free speech rights by barring him from their platforms after the events of January 6th?” Or, “How damaging is it for our democracy when people spread false information about the 2020 election?”
Beyond that, 2020 and 2021 transformed how we think – and talk – about racial inequality. In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, fewer Americans than ever before believe that racist speech is acceptable.
In short, the free speech landscape now looks very different than it did even just five years ago, as our recently released research with Knight Foundation underlines. Below are some of the major crosscurrents to be teased out from our polling with Knight:
- Changing norms. First, the big picture context. Americans increasingly reject racist speech, while tolerance for other forms of speech – such as anti-religious or socialist sentiment – tracks upwards. While racist speech is technically protected under the First Amendment, the court of public opinion sees it differently.
- Free speech importance. Free speech is a central American value. There is partisan consensus on its importance as an institution. But Americans can agree on little else regarding the consequences of free expression. Again, a tale of two Americas - one red, one blue.
- Fragility of free speech. Less than half of Americans believe that free speech is secure in America today, down from 56% in 2016. The decline is mostly driven by Republicans and Independents, as a majority of Democrats (61%) still hold confidence that freedom of speech is secure. Again, current events are likely a central driver of this sudden decline. America, we have a problem here!
- Feeling protected. Though Americans might feel free speech is less secure, most feel that the First Amendment protects people like them. However, Black Americans and Black college students (to an even greater extent) are least likely to feel protected. The tale of two Americans is at play once again. Not everyone trusts that First Amendment protections extend to them.
- Ease of free speech. Although a majority feel protected by the First Amendment, in a tribalized America, many feel that the “other” has an easier time expressing their free speech rights without consequence. Take the partisan views below as just one example. Republicans believe it’s easier for “liberals” to express their free speech rights than “conservatives.” Vice versa for Democrats. The grass is always greener on the other side.
The past few years have left a clear imprint on our collective views on free speech. While free speech is still a universally appreciated value, partisans are bitterly divided on how secure it is. At the same time, many feel that it’s easier for the “other” to express themselves, another indication of how deeply tribalized we have become. How lasting these effects will be remains to be seen.