The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

Free Speech Year in Review: 2011

By Roy Gutterman, December 28, 2011

Free speech dominated this year.  Despotic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were overturned after protestors filled the streets and public squares, speaking out for change.  Fueled by social media, the so-called “Arab Spring” not only took down strongmen dictators, but also inspired Americans to get out and protest.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which was born in lower Manhattan, as a protest against big banks and the financial industry, spread to cities and college campuses across the country.  The protestors have taken a stand.  Whether some crossed that invisible line between free speech and breaking the law by squatting in public parks, may still be up for grabs, along with the efficacy of their messages. 

Nevertheless, the “Occupy” protestors are doing just that:  protesting.   The establishment may be dismissive and the message diffuse, but it is fun to see people taking to the streets.

While the First Amendment has been tested in the courts on a range of issues from typical media law to basic First Amendment principles, the United States Supreme Court issued two rulings upholding free speech values.

In March, the Court struck down a massive tort claim against the Westboro Baptist Church whose members are well known for protesting at funerals of fallen soldiers.  In Snyder v. Phelps, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that speech on public issues, even with offensive messages, should be protected.

The other major First Amendment case came down in June when the Court struck down a California law banning the sale and labeling of violent video games to minors.  In Brown v. EMA, the Court refused to carve out a new exception to First Amendment rights for materials with violent content.

The constant development of First Amendment principles keeps churning up new cases.  In 2012, the Court will issue an opinion on whether the Copyright Act should be modified to get the United States in line with other countries in a case argued in October, Golan v. Holder.

2012 will also see the Court revisit the standards for broadcast television and radio with regard to spontaneous fleeting expletives in FCC v. Fox.  Even more interesting, the Court will hear arguments in the case of United States v. Alvarez to see if lying about military honors, in violation of a federal law, is protected under the First Amendment.

Next year promises a lot of action, too.