First Amendment Rights and the World Wide Web

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Amendment 1

"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."

-The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights-

Well, there it is.
The First Amendment written word for word. It’s amazing how many people will use the First Amendment; and hide behind it as a “license to say whatever I want”; and yet never really read it. Most people think that the First Amendment merely means ‘freedom of speech”…and that’s it. Yet, when you look at it in its full context, that’s not what it means at all.

Brilliantly drafted and proposed by Congress in 1789, it was written to insure that the government wouldn’t interfere with religion, news, or citizen’s opinions. It had no specific medium in mind when it said “abridging the freedom of speech”. Phones, television, radio, entertainment, and the internet were inconceivable at that time…yet they managed to cover all the bases. It was written to insure the population that the Government will not control their thinking like many monarchs and tyrants did in those days (and still do).


It does not say (as hate mongers, and controversial celebrities would like you to believe) that you have the right to say whatever you want; to piss anyone you want off, and they have to take it. It’s like saying that having a drivers license gives you the right to run over anyone you want with no penalties.

The First Amendment merely means that the Government (Congress, specifically) can’t stop you from doing this.

It would have been nice if it had said “responsibly-used freedom of speech”, but I’m not going to suggest that we should change something that has been in our Bill Of Rights since 1791.

It boils down to this…CHOICE.

You can choose to be mindful of someone’s feelings when you say, write, record, or publish your opinions. You can also choose to ignore and not listen to what to what you don’t agree with. The topic of “free speech” was left as a gray area in our country. Let’s keep it that way. I will always respect a person’s opinion, whether or not I agree, and acknowledge that this is merely their opinion. I, personally, would never try to censor a person (no matter how stupid or ignorant). I have the choice to walk away, and never listen to them again.

The World Wide Web

Well, there we go again. A new day and age, and a new medium. This page I am writing can be viewed, via the internet, all over the world. As an American I can voice my opinion freely on this website…

But does this apply to the rest of the world?

Well, that is not for me to decide. That is someone else’s headache. As an American, who cherishes his freedom, I sincerely hope the powers that be would adopt a “world wide standard for freedom of speech on the internet”, or if it has already; I sincerely hope they keep it.

Our right to have Congress not abridge our freedom of speech, has given way to new ideas, and new innovations, that advanced our country beyond anything our founding fathers could have conceived. Would a censoring country allow Alexander Graham Bell to create a device that would allow citizens to speak privately from home to home? Or allow Marconi to create a device that would bring broadcasts, entertainment, and information into a person’s living room? Think about it.

The World Wide Web, if left uncensored, can do the same for the world…

Examples of Censorship

I have seen many attempts at censorship on the web already, and honestly, it saddens me. A recent case involved Rik Havyk, who merely spoofed a concept, and had her web page removed several times from several hosts. From a business stance, I can agree with these companies. They state in their terms of service that freedom of speech does not apply on their site, and reserve the right to remove your page without warning.

Why? Well, again, from a business stance, is the expense of fighting a law suit (with or without merit) worth the free space you give a member? Not really. But then again, it’s a sad day when you have to worry about your page being removed because of offending someone. To this day, members of that group still hunt her down on the internet and threaten webmasters with the FCC and lawsuits for having her on, no matter how docile her website is.

My question is, have you seen what takes the place of the pages they have removed? On the Geocities site, that web address now holds a spanish page with pictures of nude fat women. Far more tastless than Rik Havyk’s spoofs and satire. I wont reveal the address of that page, because I will acknowledge that person’s rights and freedom (though it is against Geocities TOS) and will employ the mature choice of simply not going there.

These are of course cases of sites on commercially hosted domains. Private domains emerge more victorious, as these authors are their own webmasters and aren’t afraid of telling the offended parties “Tough, buddy…you have to deal with it…”

One such case is the irrepressable genius of Halcyon Styn on Prehensile Tales. He wrote a parody of a product that the company that manufactured it didn’t find so amusing (actually, they were the only ones who didn’t find it funny). He was slapped with a cease and desist order, and threatened with legal action if he didn’t remove the parody. Styn held his ground and, in effect, called their bluff..and they backed down. A major victory for the freedom of speech.

My hero and mentor, Jeffrey Zeldman lost all of his corporate sponsors on Jeffrey Zeldman Presents when they discovered he had an “adult” section on his site. They freaked and abanoned ship; when the “adult” section was, in reality, a hard hitting, thought provoking statement about…well…you’ll just have to see it for yourself. [ Go ahead, I’ll wait.]

Zeldman’s many friends and fans came to bat for him. A letter-writing campaign was launched that was so powerful and so damaging that they all came back, and learned a valuable lesson…



In conclusion to my installment of this soapbox, I have three words: RESPONSIBILITY, RESPECT, and RIGHTS.

The new 3R’s. Voice your opinions responsibly, respect other peoples opinions, and acknowledge their rights to freedom of speech.

There are 5 1/2 billion points of view on this planet, and no one is 100% right.
Let freedom of speech become a global standard, and we can change the world.

Eric Brooks

Musician, Programmer, Graphic Designer, Evil Clown - A thorn in the Internet's side since 1997 with no intention of stopping any time soon.

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