Dangerous lies and hateful rhetoric endanger the very principles on which the United States was founded.
Our First Amendment rights are arguably the most important and fundamental rights in the United States. The First Amendment grants us five basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government. These five rights are the base of our democracy and are central to our American identity.
However, recently, there have been many people who utilize their freedom of speech by using it to spread hateful rhetoric and to hurt others. So, this begs the question: To what extent should speech be protected by freedom of speech?
Most people have heard the classic scenario in their U.S. government courses: If you yell "fire" in a crowded theater, is that false statement illegal because you are inciting panic and potentially harming others, or are you protected by the First Amendment to be able to say whatever you want? Generally, people agree that this example, an example that highlights how false statements of this nature could potentially lead to dangerous consequences, should not be protected by the First Amendment. Causing panic and potentially harming others because of a false statement is generally viewed as unprotected speech.
This brings me to the greatest threat to our freedom of speech.
People who abuse their right to speak their mind in order to spread false and potentially dangerous lies about those they disagree with politically threaten all of our freedoms. Alex Jones, a popular far-right conspiracy theorist, has repeatedly claimed that the parents of the young children who were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are paid actors and that the Sandy Hook shooting never took place.
While this statement is clearly offensive to the parents, those who were affected by the shooting, and the memory of those who lost their lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, it also is a false, libelous accusation that could result in potentially dangerous consequences. Those who listen to Alex Jones and genuinely believe that shootings in the U.S. are conspiracies are dangerously misinformed. These statements can cause them to take irrational positions on topics of national importance. Not only are Alex Jones' claims false, but they are also defamatory, offensive, and intentionally used to incite anger in his viewers.
A more general example of this type of speech is the xenophobic, racist remarks that many make about undocumented immigrants in the United States. Many people feel as though their offensive and racist remarks about immigrants are protected under the First Amendment. However, spreading untrue information about undocumented immigrants in order to purposefully scare or upset others into action should be considered equivalent to shouting fire in a crowded theater. In the same way, their speech is false and carries potentially dangerous consequences. Purposefully spreading lies to incite a reaction in others threatens all of our freedoms and undermines the democracy that was built on the First Amendment.
The First Amendment was intended to give all Americans the rights to be able to pray to their own gods, to assemble and petition the government about grievances, and to share opinions that dissent from the mainstream in an area in which opinions and ideas could compete.
In a world in which the "marketplace of ideas" is constantly growing larger — especially with modern communication and the growth of the internet — dangerous lies and hateful rhetoric endanger the very principles on which the United States was founded.