a closeup of a microphone on a stage

Freedom of Speech and the Modern Public Square

By Elise De Young

James Madison embedded the freedom of speech in American society when he penned the Bill of Rights in 1791.

The free speech clause in the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law‚Ķ abridging the freedom of speech or the press.” Abridging can be understood simply as “to impose a restriction on.” If I may be so bold as to reconfigure Madison’s words, he wrote, “Congress shall make no law‚Ķ that imposes a restriction on freedom of speech or the press.” It is abundantly clear that the right to freedom of speech is absolute. The government may apply no restrictions on speech without violating the First Amendment.

How was this right exercised by the early Americans? 

Historically, before the internet and social media, even before mass-produced papers and articles, the public square was represented by a physical space where citizens would gather to reason with one another. It was a place of persuasion. The idea was that you would come with your belief, and I would come with mine, and we would discuss and debate our differences until the best idea won.

Consider the masterful debates between “Honest Abe” and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858. These debates would gather large crowds who would eagerly attend the speeches that were known to span three or four hours.

Why?

The answer is that Americans loved and respected their public square. They yearned for truth and wanted their views to be challenged and improved. This era embodied Romans 12:2 (ESV) when it says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Of course, this does not represent every individual; there are always those who are too proud to listen. But this accurately represents the posture of the 19th-century American mind.

In short, freedom of speech is the right of an American to express any idea or belief without imposition from the government; the public square is where this right is exercised freely.

With these definitions in mind, we can now examine our modern day.

The Modern Public Square

In 2017, the Supreme Court made the case in Packingham v. North Carolina that “social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are now the “town squares” of America where the right of freedom of speech is exercised.” They officially titled this phenomenon the “modern public square.”

I believe you would agree with me when I say that today, our modern public square has regressed far from its original model. Rather than hosting serious, intellectual, and reasonable discussions, social media has become a war zone that wields mockery, foolishness, and manipulation as its weapons.

In recent decades, the term “hate speech” has gained traction among Americans as we label opposing perspectives as dangerous, violent, or harmful. Terms like misogynistic, homophobic, or transphobic rhetoric (I am probably missing a “phobic”) and ultra-MAGA speech have been thrown around on platforms like X and TikTok to describe speech that disagrees with a mainstream position on culture, politics, or religion.

These developments have profound implications because freedom of speech cannot flourish in a public square where people are shamed and mocked for speaking. So, we must ask ourselves: how can we change the status quo?

The Solution

I believe the solution is Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Freedom of speech is essential because it ensures that language, thought, and expression cannot be controlled by and conform to the ruling power of this world.

Today, the world is racing towards mass control and conformity to a specific set of ideas and beliefs. They are achieving their objective by silencing and shaming specific speech before the debate has even begun. Thankfully, Romans 12:2 gives us two ways to fight against conformity to the world.

The Romans 12: Strategy

First, renew your mind. One of the reasons why our modern public square is suffering is because ignorance has taken over the conversation. Ignorance of history, logic, and truth have all blended to confuse and anger both sides of the debate. We need well-educated individuals to enter into places of confusion to provide clarity and understanding. And this begins with you and me. By educating ourselves on the topics of the day, we will know the truth more fully and be prepared when our positions are challenged.

Second, discern the truth through testing. Another reason why our public square is in disarray is that we have forgotten how to test ideas through debate. Our public square echoes with the screaming of political slogans, but this is not a debate. These statements are only childish expressions of emotional opinions. If we wish for productive conversations to flourish once more, we must learn to discern ideas and put them to the test together. When we allow the opposing argument to confront our ideas, we will grow in both humility of mind and wisdom in opinion. Without this vital testing process, how can we arrive at the truth? 

The right to freedom of speech has been the bedrock of American society since our founding, and it must remain the bedrock of our modern public square today. So, let us learn to converse with one another, and may the best idea win.

Elise DeYoung is a Public Relations and Communications Associate and a Classical Conversations graduate. With CC, she strives to know God and make Him known in all aspects of her life. She is a servant of Christ, an avid reader, and a professional nap-taker. As she continues her journey towards the Celestial City, she is determined to gain wisdom and understanding wherever it can be found. Soli Deo gloria!