Laying the Framework: How Does Free Speech Look?

In China

In China, freedom of expression is viewed as a privilege, not a right. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China explains that this privilege is only extended to elite members of Chinese society. The “free-speech elite” is made up of citizens who hold prominent financial, political, and academic careers (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 2). For example, only senior members of the Communist Party can publish criticisms or opposing viewpoints. Specifically, Li Rui, former aide to Mao Zedong, published a letter asserting the following:

Li Rui. Courtesy of BBC News.

“The key is reforming an aged political system that is obsolete, and speeding up the development of democratic politics so the country can truly embark on a course of peace and stability characterized by democracy, science, and rule of law… Only with democratization can there be modernization. This has been a global tide from the 20th century, especially the Second World War, onward, and those who join it will prosper while those who resist it will perish.”

qtd. in “Freedom of Expression in China” par. 4

In other words, Li directly called for greater democracy, claiming that reforms were necessary for achieving modernity in China. The Chinese government basically claims to support the idea that freedom of expression is a privilege, but they reserve the right to punish their elite for using this privilege.

Common citizens are not allowed public forums free of censorship. Consequently, their citizens have no platform where they can openly express their opinions (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 8). In the peer-reviewed article “Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media,” Dr. David Bamman et al writes that China practices complete censorship, aiming to prevent “all access” (par. 4) to social media resources. He goes on to describe how their domestic social media sites are programmed to delete posts with sensitive language. To give their citizens a sense of false liberty, the Chinese authorities allow them to post their criticisms on a government-monitored forum. By law, the forums must be licensed, the posts must be constantly monitored, and inappropriate posts must be taken down (“Freedom of Expression in China” par. 16).

In America

For the common citizen in America, freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights states that “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” (amend. I).

As far as free speech, take note that the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (U.S. Const. amend. I). Put simply, this seems to mean that there can be no legal action taken against someone who wants to express their opinions. Despite this apparent freedom, American media is subject to censorship.

Dr. David Bamman et al calls this “soft censorship” because the law “allows access, but polices content” (“Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media” par. 4). Specifically, the United States government prohibits display of child pornography, libel, and media that infringes on copyright or other intellectual property rights (Bamman et al par. 4). According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, libel is when someone publishes something that defames another person’s character, causing them to be disliked, damaging their reputation, and harming their business (“Libel” par. 1).

Additionally, the Constitution asserts that copyright laws are put in place not only to protect intellectual property, but they also “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited time to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” (U.S. Const. art. I sec. 8). Even with these laws in place, it is not difficult to find this prohibited content. These restrictions are in place for the benefit and protection of American citizens.

Beyond this, some social media organizations choose to filter what their users can post. Facebook does not allow users to post anything “hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence” (qtd. in Bamman et al par. 4). Social media users are expected to moderate each other, and they can report or block other users for offensive content. However, no legal action can be taken unless it contains child porn, libel, or copyright infringement.

“Freedom of Expression in China: A Privilege, Not a Right.” Congressional-Executive Commission on China. N.p., n.d. Web.

Bamman, David, Brendan O’Connor, and Noah Smith. “Censorship and Deletion Practices in Chinese Social Media.” First Monday. 05 Mar. 2012. Web.

“18 U.S. Code and 798 – Disclosure of Classified Information.” Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web.

“The U.S. Bill of Rights.” National Archives. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 17 Sept. 1787. Web.

Bamman, David, Brendan O’Connor, and Noah Smith. “Censorship and Deletion Practices inChinese Social Media.” First Monday. 05 Mar. 2012. Web.

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