A recent report from the Czech Republic made me think of Americans’ widespread misunderstandings about what constitutes the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.
The most widespread misunderstanding, of course, arises because too many Americans don’t realize that the Bill of Rights only limits actions by government. If Walmart refuses to carry your book, your private-sector boss forbids politicking on the job, or your racist Facebook diatribe causes people to unfriend you after characterizing you in unpleasant ways, those aren’t violations of the First Amendment. Those are examples of people exercising their free speech rights.
But about that Czech incident…
Prague Morning reported on the arrest of Jana Peterková. Peterkova became the first person to be convicted for spreading misinformation in the Czech Republic. According to court documents, she allegedly posted a false message claiming that several seniors died in a nursing home in Měšice after receiving COVID vaccinations.
Now, it is important to note that Peterkova posted a totally manufactured story. She wasn’t sharing an opinion, or weighing in on a disputed factual situation. She recounted a purportedly personal conversation with someone she identified as an employee of the nursing home in question, and she claimed that person had told her that “the ‘mainstream media’ were ‘silent’ after several elderly people died after receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.”
However, the identified employee had not worked at the nursing home since May of 2020.
It is also important to acknowledge that the Czech Republic doesn’t have America’s First Amendment, although it has pretty robust protections for free speech. (Wikipedia says “Freedom of speech in the Czech Republic is guaranteed by the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms, which has the same legal standing as the Czech Constitution. It is the first freedom of the charter’s second division – political rights.”)
One of the conundrums of America’s free speech jurisprudence is locating the line between speech–communication–and action. Government may not be able to censor my speech, but it definitely has the right to prohibit and punish a number of my possible actions.
And just as communication can occur through action–silent marches, ripping up draft cards, and burning a flag are all actions meant to send a message–wrongful or criminal behaviors can be accomplished via the spoken or written word.
If I call your telephone every fifteen minutes to berate you for something, that behavior is not protected by the First Amendment. It isn’t communication; it’s harassment–and government can punish harassment.
If I criticize you by publishing a book with manufactured accusations, I’ve committed libel. Government can prohibit libel and slander.
If I sell you a cubic zirconium for much more than it’s worth by convincing you it’s a diamond, I’m not exercising my right to free speech; I’m guilty of fraud. Government can punish fraud.
The problem in these situations isn’t that they’re protected speech; it’s evidentiary.
If a police officer overhears two people planning to rob a liquor store, he doesn’t need to wait until they’re at the store with weapons drawn to move against them–but he’d better be able to demonstrate to a court of law that he knew they were serious–that what he overheard was part of the illegal activity–that they weren’t just playing a game, or kidding around.
In the case from the Czech Republic, the evidence was evidently unambiguous. The information Peterkova transmitted was false and she clearly knew it was false, since she’d invented it.
Most of the propaganda being spewed in today’s U.S. is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Opinions–no matter how nutty–are protected, and far too much of what passes for journalism in this country today, even in the most credible outlets, is really the venting of opinions. Even though a number of Faux News pundits and their ilk likely know they are dealing in a manufactured reality, proving to a court that they know they are dealing in falsehoods–at least, in the absence of some inadvertent admission– would be impossible.
Overall, the protection offered by the First Amendment is immensely positive. That said, however, the reality of our time is that “censorship” is no longer accomplished by suppression; today, partisans and culture warriors flood the Information environment with enormous amounts of clickbait and propaganda, intended to “drown out” responsible fact-finding, then use the First Amendment as a shield.
it’s a situation that requires a citizenry able to separate wheat from chaff. Civic and news literacy have never been more important.
Unfortunately, the ideologies that motivate the propaganda in the first place also convince partisans that “truth” is information that confirms their initial biases–and increasingly, that illegal and/or illegitimate action–even insurrection– is protected “free speech.”