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Free Speech In 2021 Requires Oversight, But From Whom?


The ability to speak freely in 2021 is complicated in ways the framers of the U.S. Constitution never envisioned. But at the same time, the First Amendment has never been stronger. That’s the judgment of Neil Richards, the Koch Distinguished Professor of Law at Washington University.

“There have probably never been so few government restrictions on expression in any society at any point in human history,” he said. “But at the same time, the United States is experiencing an undeniable free speech crisis. People are trying to silence each other; people aren’t listening to each other. Many times it seems that different members of our society are living in parallel, almost untouching realities.”

He added: “If we’re interested in building a cohesive, democratic society that produces good governing decisions more often than not, when it comes to the free speech side of things, I think we’re in a very bad place.”

His colleague, John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University, agreed that the country is in a bad place when it comes to free speech.

“Free speech is about us and who we are. It’s a garbage-in, garbage-out problem,” Inazu said. “We can talk about lots of people and actors we want to blame — social media, private companies, government — but at the end of the day, all of these actors are responding to what we do. And they’re complicating it with algorithms and other motives, but at the end of the day, we’re forming the people we are, and that’s a problem.”

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Inazu and Richards joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss how the First Amendment applies in this brave new world and whether unpopular speech — be it a dissenting opinion, a false claim or hate speech — deserves protection not just from the government, but tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.