The Power of Public Opinion: How Free Speech Shapes Democracy
In the 21st century, there are many different mediums through which individuals are able to express their opinions and political ideologies. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have become increasingly popular and are used by politicians to voice their opinions on a wide range of topics. More recently, podcasts such as NPR or The Daily Beast have provided commentary on controversial topics or provide information on political debates in Congress. Ultimately, public statements of opinion hold much value in that they allow groups of individuals to gather support for popular ideas utilizing the First Amendment and implement change to existing institutions of government.
The First Amendment plays a major role in fostering democratic values, as people have the ability to voice their own opinions without the fear of government suppression. However, the right to free speech has narrowed in scope over time. For example, in the Supreme Court case Schenck vs. U.S., the court ruled that speech can be limited if it poses a "clear and present danger." Some might argue that this violates their protected First Amendment rights, but in this case, the court wanted to protect national security interests by limiting speech that went against the draft in World War I. The First Amendment gives individuals the right to express their viewpoints on many different topics and makes the United States unique in the sense that for the most part, people do not have to worry about what they say out loud or post online. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement was a series of peaceful protests that helped to raise awareness of the problem of police brutality that has been targeting African Americans. These protests were able to happen because they were protected under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The fact that people are able to use the First Amendment as a mechanism to raise awareness about certain issues in society holds much value and fosters a democratic society. In many other countries, people lack the ability to freely express their opinions and bring about social change. The Black Lives Matter Movement still is an extremely popular social movement that has shown how people are able to freely protest about pressing issues. Furthermore, in the Supreme Court Case Tinker vs. DeMois, the Supreme Court case held that a group of students are able to express their opinions in a school setting under the First Amendment if it does not cause a disturbance to the learning environment. In this case, students wore armbands that protested the war in Vietnam which was a popular idea amongst the majority of the school. Both the Black Lives Matter Movement and Tinker vs. DeMois show how public statements of opinion hold value in that there are ways in which individuals can gather support for a popular opinion.
Public statements of opinion also hold much value and foster a democratic society by allowing different interest groups to implement change to existing institutions of government. For instance, the Temperance movement was a group in the late 19th and 20th centuries that worked to ban the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Individuals in this group organized protests across the nation and eventually convinced the government to pass the 18th Amendment which started Prohibition. Although the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, the Temperance movement provides an example of how ordinary individuals are able to change institutions of government using public opinion. In addition, the women's suffrage movement of the early 20th century demonstrates how people have the ability to bring about change to the government in impactful ways. Prominent figures of the women's rights movement such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton voiced their ideologies to large audiences in order to persuade Congress to pass the 19th Amendment. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the women's rights movement proved how their voices could implement direct change in the government. The Temperance and women’s suffrage movements both had lasting effects on the functioning of the government, allowing for change to be possible.
Public statements of opinion enable people to gather support for a popular idea and implement meaningful change to established institutions of government. Although in some cases the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech have been limited, the Supreme Court has generally ruled in favor of free speech. Due to the fact that many other countries lack these liberties, the rights protected under the First Amendment and the ability to change the government's existing institutions help foster a uniquely distinct democratic society in the United States.
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