Opinion

Experts: How to protect, enhance freedom of expression, democracy

Posted 5/6/22

Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a healthy, functioning democracy.

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Opinion

Experts: How to protect, enhance freedom of expression, democracy

Posted

Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a healthy, functioning democracy.

A nation demonstrates the value it places on human dignity when each person can speak freely and express themselves through speech, art, literature and other means of expression.

We recently interviewed experts about this essential freedom, exploring topics like the rise of the internet as a vehicle for expression, the state of free speech on college campuses, and the challenges facing freedom of the press globally.

The calls to action that we gleaned from those experts include these recommendations to bolster freedom of expression:

Big Tech

Ukrainians keep using the digital world to rally one another and inform the world about Russia’s invasion.

Meanwhile, Russia uses its own internet tools to spread disinformation about its moves in Ukraine.

These dualities highlight why U.S. and Western policymakers and technology leaders must strike the right balance in modernizing the internet. They must protect freedom of expression and the free flow of information while curtailing the spread of disinformation and the worst aspects of social media use.

This is no easy balance to strike, but it is best left to the private sector to strike it.

A good example is Facebook’s Oversight Board. The independent panel consists of leaders and experts who don’t need to kowtow to any potential threat to their decision making.

That is a good place to start, although Facebook or any other tech company cannot use such a board as window dressing.

The private sector also can attack this challenge through innovation. Freedom House’s Adrian Shahbaz emphasized to us how WhatsApp made end-to-end encryption the standard for its more than 1 billion users.

That is a greater protection of privacy than a government regulation.

Still, elected leaders and regulators have a role to play. Congress, for example, should continue working on revamping Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Written in the late 1990s, that section rightly protected the emerging internet from the liability laws governing traditional news organizations.

Legislators should reconsider that exemption since social media platforms have become a go-to source for information, including disinformation.

Similarly, the United States and its democratic allies must thwart China and autocratic nations from rewriting the rules of the internet.

Their attempts to do so in global forums could result in a body blow to freedom of expression.

Free speech on campus

Free speech in a diverse society needs citizens to engage with others, even if those engagements are uncomfortable. Without such exposure, we’re tempted to shut out everything with which we disagree.

Breaking down our bubbles is especially important for college students who hail from homogeneous backgrounds. They often lack the skills to engage with classmates with different experiences and views.

Students themselves have the responsibility to act.

Yet university administrators should create opportunities for engagements to occur as early as college orientation sessions.

Administrators also must not shy away from inevitable controversies. As Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Campus Free Expression Project told us, “Having controversial expression is not a sign of failure.”

Freedom of the Press

Russia’s suppression of a free press during the Ukraine war underscores Vladimir Putin’s disregard for a free press. No independent media organization remains in Russia.

That includes Novaya Gazeta, for which editor Dmitry Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his commitment to independent reporting.

In our own hemisphere, an alarming challenge to freedom of the press exists.

Eight Mexican journalists already have been murdered this year.

Guatemalan journalist Sofia Menchu explained in an interview how authorities in her country attempt to suppress an independent media.

For instance, Guatemalan leaders use lawsuits against journalists to get them to censor themselves before publishing a story or commentary.

Journalists like Menchu need leaders from President Joe Biden to members of Congress to State Department officials to decry attempts to crack down on a free press in Guatemala, Central America and elsewhere. As she said, international governments and organizations can help journalists enjoy freedom of speech.

U.S. lawmakers also should adequately fund organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and U.S. Agency for International Development. Part of their democracy-building work is growing a free press abroad.

Likewise, legislators should effectively support taxpayer-funded organizations such as

Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They provide valuable, factual information to people in nations that lack uncensored news.

These recommendations have a simple goal: enhancing a flow of reliable information and ensuring a robust marketplace of ideas.

After all, that is essential to creating and maintaining a vibrant democracy.

Editor’s note: Chris Walsh, Lindsay Lloyd and William McKenzie host the George W. Bush Institute’s Democracy Talks series, where a longer version of this essay originally appeared. This is distributed by InsideSources.com.

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