— LET INGA TELL YOU:
This whole freedom of speech thing was a nice idea back in 1791, but if Ben Franklin’s daughter Sally (yes, he had one) had been trashed online by the mean girls at East Philadelphia Junior High, there would have been a whole different discussion going on down at Independence Hall. That’s my mom view anyway. My husband Olof and I have been debating this for some time. He thinks our forefathers got it right with the First Amendment. But then, he would be wrong.
Just in case it’s not immediately obvious, my feelings about this are purely emotional rather than based on any more sophisticated understanding of the law. When our forefathers guaranteed freedom of speech in the First Amendment, they clearly never imagined an era where libel seems to have become the norm and where there is little recourse for its victims. Sure you can hire a lawyer — if you have an extra $200,000 lying around and you could even figure out who was defaming you. AND you were willing to wait until 2020 for your case to be heard.
I feel enormously grateful that my sons graduated from high school before the Internet was as prevalent as it is now. But I truly fear for the grandchildren. Some of the stories my friends have told me about the online bashing their kids have taken have been truly chilling. Good friends of ours removed their son from school after online threats were made to his safety by a bunch of adolescent bullies whose parents seemed to be AWOL. The school in question said that the threats weren’t being made on their website so not much they could do.
Sorry, Founding Fathers, this has gotten totally out of hand. The trolls are winning. Back then, Ben might have chatted it up with the bullys’ assorted parents. But you have to know who they are.
Cyberbullying keeps taking on new forms. Reading the comments section of virtually any news story, YouTube channel, or other media, one cannot help but notice the preponderance of wackos. They’ve mis-read the article (or maybe just can’t read), gone off on some bizarre tangent, and have frequently added totally erroneous information that by virtue of being in print has now become “fact.” Insanely cruel and unfair comments about innocent people are printed. All of it protected by the First Amendment.
Where once those public comments had to pass through the filter of a newspaper editor, misspelled vitriol goes straight to public post without passing through reflection and/or on-line thesaurus (which would probably throw up its digital hands in despair anyway).
Has the First Amendment become the Bill of Rights of Wingnuts? A license to libel? The Internet gives these ultracrepidators full access to vent their psychotic spleens on anyone they choose. Gratuitous cyber hating — people who seem to post a negative message regardless of how innocuous (or even totally pleasant) the content was — abounds.
Olof maintains our forefathers got the First Amendment right. Should the government be the remedy for all bad things? he queries. The founders had faith in the common man, that they’d be able to exercise judgment about what they heard. I don’t know; maybe people were saner then.
I think they got it as right as they could have given that they didn’t have a crystal ball. If Ben and the boys were crafting the First Amendment today, would it still read the same? Cyberbullying is devastating for anyone, but especially hard on kids. I personally think there ought to be some well-enforced protections where minors are concerned. I’m clear that making restrictions on free speech would be a slippery slope. But personally, I think the First Amendment needs an amendment. If I were up to me, it would read as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances except when total idiots who can’t spell, have the intelligence of fruit flies, and waaay too much time on their hands inflict gratuitous misery on innocent parties in which case Congress shall gladly (and permanently) remove their Internet access and send them to a deserted island where they will live out their days answering customer service calls for the IRS.
And as for the Second Amendment, I’m guessing that after the latest mass shooting, our forefathers are spinning in their graves. I know, guys: It was such a good idea at the time.
— Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org