Speaking Up and Out

If you find the current state of speech and expression for America and the rest of the world alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similar form of society—then there are several things you can do to fight against this. Here are a few ways to respond to issues you care about that you feel aren’t getting sufficient attention or that you suspect may be getting censored out of the public eye.

1. Spread It Around – Actively distribute and spread your data and information out. Do not let it become concentrated in too few hands. This obviously spreads the word about whatever information you have at hand but also increases the chance of the information surviving if some sort of censorship clamp down begins digitally or physically. Back up your information in multiple locations, hard drives, paper copies, etc. Do your best to make your information incapable of being fully destroyed.

2. Cross T’s and Dot I’s – Whatever type of information or resources you may have at your fingertips, make sure it is well-researched, well-written, fair and accurate. Nothing can cause slip ups, questions and doubts towards a cause more than sloppy, inaccurate documentation, organization and presentation. If a writer is going to write something to publish, then they should write something they would be proud to stand by and publicly defend. (The writer may very well be called up to do just that! The writer needs to do their best to not make themselves easy targets.)

3. Pick Battles – Fighting for rights as a citizen and human being is a worthy endeavor. But, in truth, some battles and fights involving censorship end up being worthier than others. Do you want to go to battle over the right to use a four letter word? Or the right to publish a saucy, rumor-filled gossip column? Is it worth pulling out all the First Amendment stops when your school principal objects to a newspaper’s editorial description of a curriculum change as “idiotic,” when she would agree to calling the change “unwise?” There are no hard and fast rules for determining when a fight is worth the time and effort involved, but the question whether to fight or not should always be asked.

4. Do the Homework – Laws related to free expression can be complex. Take the time to really understand your rights. Every case and situations has its strengths and weaknesses and it is important to accurately assess where one stands. Sadly, many people in power don’t know or even care about laws related to free speech rights. Too often these individuals act without taking the time to figure out what they lawfully can and cannot do. Help educate yourself as well as those around you so you can better explain standard practices as well as refute incorrect beliefs and ideas about citizen rights.

5. Meet the Censors – As soon as the threat of censorship emerges, a small group of individuals involved in the issue should set up a meeting with the censor. The purpose of this meeting is to air all sides’ concerns and to resolve the situation before it heats up. Confront the threat but avoid being confrontational. At all times, be courteous and show the appropriate respect. Take good, accurate notes of what is said and by whom. If the person in power you are meeting with refuses to change their mind and reasonable compromise is not possible, take your case to the next level, and, if necessary, the level above that. Make it clear that you hope to avoid a fight, but also leave no doubt that you are prepared to take a stand.

6. Public Pressure – Public pressure can be very effective. A good first step is to draft a press release about the censorship in question. A press release briefly and accurately summarizes the facts surrounding the censorship, provides information regarding any upcoming developments (for example, a student protest, a school board meeting, etc.) and includes contact information for those wanting additional information. Send the press release to your local news media (including local high school and college student media.) Send your release to civil rights groups, to your state press associations and to alumni, parent and civic groups. In some cases, students have found that creative, peaceful protests (for instance, wearing black armbands, symbolically covering their mouths with tape during lunchtime, passing out copies of the First Amendment after school, circulating a student petition, etc.) have generated favorable attention.

7. Alternative Media – If the powers that be consistently censor your media and refuse to even consider allowing more freedom, you may — in addition to fighting the censorship — want to consider an alternative means of getting your message out, including utilizing social media. A community newspaper may be willing to publish your work. Off-campus websites or underground (independently published) publications are entitled to significant First Amendment protection.

8. Legal Options – After appealing the censorship and making your case in the court of public opinion, your next step may be a court of law. Unfortunately, cases that are worth challenging administratively and publicly are sometimes not always appropriate for a legal challenge. The facts of a case, the quality of evidence, the availability of witnesses and the history of court cases in a particular jurisdiction are among the factors that must be considered. An experienced media law or civil rights attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons of filing a lawsuit. In the end, however, a positive court ruling is not the only measure of victory. In fact, many successful censorship battles have ended with the censored material never published. The victory in such cases is achieved in the battle itself, in having the courage to stand up for what is right. While completely free speech and independent press may not always be achievable, the very act of reminding others why it is important and worth defending — fighting the good fight — is always an honorable accomplishment.

Section Objective: Students will learn how they can protect and celebrate their Freedoms of Expression.

Discussion Questions:

  • Think of all of the ways you express yourself (print, text, voice, images, visual art, music, dance, athletics, any way you can express yourself!). If you were to be censored or restrained in one of those forms of expression, which would have the strongest and most powerful impact on you and your expressing yourself? Why? Which forms of expression do you gravitate toward the most? Why?
  • Does being heard matter to you? Who do you want to be heard by? If you care about your thoughts and feelings reaching a broader audience, how could you better vary your approach to broadcasting your expressions?

Citations / Further Exploration:
Responding to Censorship – Student Press Law Center: https://splc.org/responding-to-censorship/
The Show Must Go On: https://ncac.org/resource/the-show-must-go-on
National Coalition Against Censorship: https://ncac.org/