Reprinted from the Providence Journal, June 25, 2023
Catherine Morris is the program director of Courageous RI, a statewide media literacy initiative of the Media Education Lab, University of Rhode Island.
Civics Education is Important in RI - Here's Why
Last month, I presented "Why the Public is Confused about Censorship" at the Rhode Island Library Association conference, and while I had questioned what I could possibly say that my well-informed audience wouldn't already know about censorship and the First Amendment, I was struck by what I heard over and over again: "It's not just that the public is confused. I'm confused."
Civic education hasn't been a priority in Rhode Island for years, which explains the confusion. The last time I was formally taught about the First Amendment was in the fourth grade. When our understanding of government, politics, and the world around us comes from long-ago school lessons, conversations in passing, or the media, there's so much opportunity for confusion to take hold, whether we realize we're confused or not.
This is why I'm excited about the Rhode Island Department of Education's new civics framework. An informed public is inherently desirable in a democracy, so clarity around these topics is intrinsically worthwhile, but we've also seen consequences of this confusion. If people are confused about what free speech really means, any discourse or disagreement feels like an attack. This only increases polarization, furthers political divides, and makes us unable to understand one another. It almost sounds too simple of a solution and truthfully it is – but imagine the impact it could have on public discourse and modern politics if we all truly understood what freedom of speech really means.
If we can talk to one another, listen for understanding, and find common ground, we might have a chance at a more civil and broadly representative democracy. Confusion about free speech and censorship appears in two noticeable and related ways. First, people are a little too ready to claim "censorship." Secondly, people seem to forget that their political opponents have First Amendment rights, too. Let me explain.
When I say that people are too ready to claim censorship, by no means am I dismissing their concerns. The problem is confusion about what censorship really is. Censorship (the kind by which we have a right not to be affected by) is the suppression of ideas or speech by the government. The important distinction here is that no individual, corporation, or social media platform can censor someone. If you argue over politics with a relative who doesn't allow you to speak, that's not censorship – at least, not the kind you're protected from.
Let's consider another example: if you violate community guidelines on Instagram, they have every right to ban your account (see Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act). While your speech is being prohibited on that platform, it doesn't amount to government censorship. Private corporations have their own rights, including the right to decide what kind of content they allow and from whom. This brings us to my second point. In such an individualistic society as the 21st century United States, it's no wonder we've ended up here. So many times when someone claims that their First Amendment rights are being violated, they're not considering that the party they feel is infringing upon them also has First Amendment rights.
I thought about this balance a lot while preparing for my talk to the librarians – especially in light of recent debates concerning book protests. From an outside perspective, it seems like both sides are feeling righteous, offended, and concerned about their rights. Librarians have a duty to uphold freedom of information; individuals have the right to protest. It seems to me like everyone feels that in order to be right, the "other side" must be wrong. As it turns out, they both have important rights to protect, and it's up to lawmakers to do so. Truthfully, none of this leaves us with easy answers. But at the very least, bringing attention to the topic and considering other perspectives may be progress.