The Price of Free Speech

Noa Rubinstein

At 4:00 am on December 5th, my alarm went off. I was greeted with geotags intended for those heading to sleep as I got up and prepared for the full day ahead of me—I, along with five other representatives from Ma’ayanot, was participating in Yeshiva University Political Action Committee’s (YUPAC) annual lobbying trip. We traveled to Washington, D.C. to ask congressmen to aid Israel and thank them for their support.
The right to lobby is protected under the First Amendment. Professional lobbyists make use of their right to petition the government and remain on Capitol Hill the whole year while others come for a day or two, like we did with YUPAC. Similar appeals and protests have made changes on the climate change debate, and organizations such as AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) have succeeded in affecting policies regarding Israel. This form of free speech ensures that minorities are heard and encourages a diversity of opinions. Without the First Amendment to guarantee this ability, it would be far more difficult for ordinary citizens to influence government policies.
But, what happens when free speech becomes dangerous, rather than protective? What if starts to threaten, rather than expand, our democracy? In recent years, the issue of fake news, or deliberate disinformation, has become a “hot topic”. News is considered “fake” when news sources or article writers deliberately include false information in order to sway public opinion. This information has the potential to spread, and may cause harm. Take, for instance, the case of teenage vaping. While false data that denies the health risks of vaping may not seem problematic (after all, who’s going to believe it anyway?), they can lead people to believe that vaping is not dangerous. This information can be shared with others, and lead them to unknowingly risk their lives. According to the Pew Research Center, as many as 23% of Americans have shared fake news, contributing to issues such as this one.
Fake news poses a danger to the state of free press in the country. Due to rampant accusations of fake news, many Americans no longer trust the media. More than half of the members of both Democrats and Republicans have stopped getting news from a news outlet they believe has spread fake news, and half of Republicans, as well as 38% of Democrats, have reduced their overall news consumption because of the concern of fake news. Because many people now receive news from limited sources and engage less frequently in the media, polarization in the country has increased. Our First Amendment right is meant to allow for a diversity of opinions and inform citizens about the issues important to the country; in the process, however, it has managed to do the opposite.
The issue of fake news can present itself directly, by misinforming people, or indirectly, by increasing skepticism and polarization, but in both scenariosit is a threat that must be taken seriously. While the first amendment has granted us many rights and opportunities, such as lobbying for Israel, there is also risk embedded within such a system. We consider how to preserve both our value of free speech and that of diversity—two values that should intersect, yet now seem to run on completely different planes.