The United States is at a crossroads. Since the day the nation declared its independence, it has built a foundation on the unalienable right to freedom of speech. The founders enshrined the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution to put a certain end to any debate, guaranteeing a free society unafraid to exercise their voice and power. Centuries later, Americans widely agree that the dreams of the founders are in serious jeopardy.
America is undoubtedly polarized, reaching the highest level of divisions in centuries and fueling a feedback loop of tit-for-tat free speech attacks between the Democratic Party and Republican Party, between the younger and older generations and from the largest corporations to educational institutions to individual citizens.
In the political realm, attacks on free speech and expression have become legislative policy at an alarming rate. Book bans have spread rapidly throughout the U.S., speech concerning LGBTQ+ topics has been attacked in educational institutions, more than three dozen states, including Rhode Island, have banned boycotting Israel if one wishes to do business with the state and lawmakers have been urging a clamp down on free speech on college campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. Major contenders for the 2024 presidential election have even campaigned on eroding individual rights; former President Donald Trump has promised to revoke visas for foreign students with pro-Palestine views, and presidential candidate Nikki Haley has campaigned on completely removing anonymity from social media.
The tearing strain on the free speech tradition goes beyond Washington D.C., however. The polarization in our culture has provided social media the ability to be a breeding ground for mutual flagellation between an endless sea of users. As obtuse as the term “cancel culture” may be, it is a reality that the hostility of social media is damaging our confidence to speak freely. Year by year, incidents of doxxing and swatting have grown, often causing users to self-censor for fear of retaliation. Ironically enough, this can be seen as a byproduct of a lack of moderation, causing a near-paradoxical loop where speech on social media induces a damage to free speech as a whole. This may be a natural byproduct of the ethos of social media, or it may be a more troubling sign of the divisions in American society.
Perhaps the most troubling is the aforementioned attacks on speech in colleges and universities. Even at RIC, a group known as Students for Justice in Palestine alleged attempted censorship of a planned demonstration by RIC’s administration. Beyond RIC’s campus, free speech is a violent tug-of-war between student bodies who often shun opposing beliefs and administrators and politicians who shun their students. Many campuses have fielded incidents of antisemitism since the Israel-Hamas war emerged and politicians have sought to use this flashpoint to attack students' rights to speech, shutting down pro-Palestine campus organizations and seeking to end diversity, equity and inclusion programs.
These multifaceted attacks do not have a clear solution. The founders intended for the First Amendment to quash the debate, but the First Amendment is under attack on all fronts. All that can be done is using the voice we are given to resist the powers that be. Without these voices, there will be no one in the end left to defend you.