Civility and Free Expression in Cyberspace

Civility and Free Expression in Cyberspace




In the past fifteen years, there has been a technologydriven transformation in American life. We now utilize online media to accomplish much of our work on the job and to explore the wonders of our world beyond the local community where we reside. We also communicate with— and, indeed, find and make—friends online, not simply one-on-one but in interconnected webs of relationships now referred to as social networks. These media are not only the province of the young but extend, in varying degrees, topeople of all ages.

No governmental unit, substantial business, or nonprofit organization is without a website. Facebook is the current global face of social networks. YouTube’s online videos and music have added to artistic entrepreneurship and the cultural fabric. And personal mobile phones have facilitated connecting the individual to these and other online networks. As a result, new controversies and conflicts have arisen that challenge traditional understandings of civility or civil discourse. Moreover, our Constitution and most current laws never contemplated the arrival and integration of these new technologies or the conflicts arising from them.

Bullying, harassment, hate speech, and other forms of incivility are a regrettable part of chat rooms, online forums, YouTube, Facebook, and the like. Host websites have become more sensitive to these issues, monitoring talk and encouraging users to report abuses. Indeed, Facebook utilizes an entire team of specialists to monitor abuses and remove illegal content or material that violates its own terms of service. But large online entities confront thousands of conflicts in which the line between verbal bullying, racial harassment, and uncivil comments about religion, sexual orientation, or other personal or group attributes on one hand and speech protected by the First Amendment on the other is blurred, indeed simply unclear.

Political advocacy groups walk a similarly fine line on websites that promote, among other things, Holocaust denial, the identification of Islamic terrorists or supporters, or the unauthorized labeling of sex offenders.

Questions for Discussion

An array of questions arises from serious breaches of civility in cyberspace that fuel discussion and debate:

  • Do these uncivil words pose more, fewer, or similar problems online compared with in-person, face-toface encounters?
  • Does the frequent anonymity of online talk encourage incivility?
  • What kinds of laws concerning hate speech, harassment, and bullying have the states or federal government enacted?
  • Have any of these laws been challenged in the courts?
  • Has the U.S. Supreme Court issued relevant rulings?
  • Do legislators or judges have sufficient experience with and knowledge of online media to reach informed decisions?


Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Bridging Cultures initiative. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Bar Association, or any of its program partners.