“Women, Life, Freedom”: The Mahsa Amini Protests in Iran 

“Women, Life, Freedom”: The Mahsa Amini Protests in Iran 

On September 14, 2022, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman by the name of Mahsa Amini was imprisoned by Iran’s morality police for “improper hijab.” 

Two days later, she was pronounced dead while still in police custody.  

In this blog post, we’re going to examine how Amini’s death sparked the recent wave of protests in Iran, how the government has responded so far, and what you can do to support women’s rights and the vital freedoms of speech, assembly and press in Iran. 

A Brief History of Iran’s Compulsory Hijab Laws 

Hijab refers to head coverings donned by some Muslim women, and it’s important to know about Iran’s history of compulsory hijab laws in order to understand why widespread protests broke out after Amini’s death.  

As explained by Foreign Policy in October 2022: “Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has been treating the notion of hijab, the Islamic dress code for women, with excessive urgency and as a burning issue with no expiry date. In 1983, the Iranian parliament made wearing hijab officially mandatory and stipulated a sentence of up to 74 lashes for women seen not to be observing religious dress in public places. The law was amended later to impose a monetary fine and prison sentence on the offenders. These strictures have been enforced persistently ever since. Nowhere in the entire legislative universe of the Islamic Republic can one identify a law that the government has judged to be of comparable significance.” 

Long before the protests sparked by Amini’s death, compulsory hijab laws have had tremendous impacts on the lives of women in Iran. In a September 2022 NPR interview, University of Cambridge professor of international politics of the Middle East and North Africa Roxane Farmanfarmaian explained, “between 1979 and 1990, when the morality police was formally set up, there was a great deal of pressure on women, often by just people in the streets or by random members of the police forces. And they were often harassed and attacked for not correctly wearing the hijab.” 

There have been many protests against Iran’s compulsory hijab policies over the years, such as the My Stealthy Freedom movement started by the Iranian-American journalist and activist Masih Alinejad in 2014. In May of that year, Alinejad started a Facebook page that showcased photos of women in Iran without hijab as a way to protest the Iranian government’s restrictive dress codes for women. In just two years, the page gained over one million likes and international coverage, but it ultimately did not persuade the government to put an end to its compulsory hijab laws. 

How Iran’s Government is Responding to Protests 

As of early October 2022, protests have spread to over 80 cities in Iran and many other cities around the world. In Iran, several women have burned their headscarves while chanting “women, life, freedom” in protest of compulsory hijab laws. 

In response to protesters, the Iranian government has arrested hundreds of people – including journalists – and security forces have attempted to suppress protests through harmful and even lethal means like teargas and live ammunition. As of October 26th, the death toll has surpassed 234 people, including 29 children. 

Niloofar Hamedi, the Iranian journalist who originally broke the story of Mahsa Amini’s treatment by the police, has been in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison since September 22, according to her lawyer.  

Yalda Moaiery, a prominent Iranian photojournalist who has been published in multiple international magazines, was also arrested on September 19 while she was covering anti-state protests in Tehran. According to her father, she’s currently detained at Iran’s female-only Qarchak prison.  

As of September 30, at least 28 journalists have been detained in Iran as a result of the protests. 

Iran’s treatment of journalists is alarming but sadly, not surprising. Despite the fact that press freedom is enshrined in Article 24 of Iran’s constitution, Iran has been consistently regarded by Reporters Without Borders as one of the top ten worst countries for press freedom and a 1986 press law created a loophole for authorities to crack down on journalists if their reporting could “endanger the Islamic Republic.”  

Iran’s police forces have also sought to suppress protests on university campuses. In early October, members of the Basij paramilitary group attacked students protesting at the elite Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. Over 100 protesters were arrested, many were subjected to teargas and live ammunition, and reportedly dozens were wounded by the police response. 

Reports have come out about how security forces in Iran have even targeted teenage girls like 16-year-olds Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh. While Iranian officials claimed the girls committed suicide by jumping off the roof of buildings, their families and human rights organizations (Amnesty International and Iran Human Rights) say they were tortured and later killed by the security forces.  

The Iranian government has also restricted or even completely shut down internet access in many parts of the country. Internet blackouts are incredibly dangerous for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, since they allow the Iranian government to control media narratives about what’s going on within the country, who and how many people have been arrested or killed, and what law enforcement responses have been to protests.  

The last time there were widespread internet shutdowns in Iran was 2019, when the government cut off internet access nationwide for 10 days, costing the Iranian economy some $240 million in lost online transactions. 

What You Can Do to Support Women and Freedom of Speech, Assembly and the Press in Iran 

In just the past month alone, the news coming out of Iran has been nothing short of heartbreaking. Coupled with the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and increasing political tension here in the U.S. as the midterm elections approach, it’s understandable that many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of conflict going on in the world this year.  

In times like these, it’s important to keep in mind this quote from the late Yale Law professor Robert M. Hutchins:

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”  

Rather than giving in to apathy, we can support women, press freedom, and the freedoms of speech and assembly in Iran in some of the following ways: 

  • Stay up-to-date with what’s happening in Iran by listening to Iranians themselves. For starters, you could read this interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists’ senior researcher, Yeganeh Rezaian. 
  • Support reputable, nonprofit organizations that are striving to help Iranian women and protesters. Some examples include Equality Now, the Center for Human Rights in Iran, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for human rights in Iran, and the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. 
  • Learn more about the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Some activists in Iran are calling for President Biden to halt negotiations on the 2015 deal, which would provide sanctions relief to the Iranian government.  
  • Help Iranians evade internet restrictions and maintain free expression. You can do this by installing a snowflake proxy extension on your browser. This free service allows people in Iran to connect to the internet through a proxy on your browser without their internet history being tracked as yours. 
Vet The Vote: How Veterans are Choosing to Serve their Country, Again

Vet The Vote: How Veterans are Choosing to Serve their Country, Again

Vet The Vote: How Veterans and Families are Choosing to Serve their Country, Again

First Amendment Voice recently partnered with Vet The Vote and nearly twenty other organizations—including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, NFL, National Military Family Association, and Student Veterans of America, to name a few. We were inspired to join this coalition for two key reasons: 1) to preserve fair and peaceful elections in the U.S. in the 2022 midterms and beyond, and 2) to continue showcasing the enormous impact that veterans and their families have on American democratic institutions and processes. 

What is Vet The Vote?

Vet The Vote is a project of the We the Veterans Foundation and in 2022, the goal is to recruit over 100,000 veterans and their family members to serve as poll workers for the upcoming midterm elections. This is absolutely critical, since more than 130,000 poll workers have stopped serving over the past three midterm elections and 68% of election officials across the U.S. found it challenging to secure enough poll workers in the 2018 midterm elections. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center reported that 58% of poll workers during the 2018 elections were 61+ years of age.

What all of this means is that our democracy is more at risk than we might think. Poll workers are essential to maintaining fair and free elections. Some of the many responsibilities they fulfill include:

  • Checking in and assisting voters with any questions or concerns they may have
  • Ensuring there are adequate supplies for all voters, as well as accommodations for disabled voters (e.g., page magnifiers, wheelchair ramps)
  • Processing absentee ballots
  • Maintaining voter privacy
  • Requesting the removal of disruptive poll observers


In polling places with too few workers, there could be excessively long lines (which could turn people away from voting entirely) or even lead to the shutdown of the polling place in the event of a severe short-staffing issue. 

Short-staffed polling places are problematic for urban and rural voters alike. In populous urban areas, the wait time may be longer than the time remaining to vote before the poll closes, especially later in the day when many people go to vote after work. In less-populated rural areas, some people may need to drive for miles just to access a polling place, which can disproportionately impact low-income voters who may have limited means of transportation.

With these troubling consequences in mind, what better way to ensure the right to vote is protected than having veterans serve as poll workers? The vast majority of veterans have already served in nonpartisan ways and understand the importance of service in their communities. Maintaining the security and integrity of our elections now and in the future has never been more important, and American veterans are well-equipped for this task. You can support Vet The Vote by signing up to be a poll worker or donating to We the Veterans Foundation.

2022 National Symposium Panel on Veterans

Additionally, we have a programming scheduled for our 2022 National Symposium in September on the role of veterans in civic engagement. Will you be in the Philadelphia area on September 24th? Please consider joining us at the National Constitution Center. Register here 

In addition to our partnership with Vet The Vote, First Amendment Voice also had an outstanding panel on the role of veterans in depolarization during our 2021 National Symposium. You can listen to the full panel on our YouTube page here.

FAV is launching a new series on our YouTube channel exploring the difference between civics and politics and our role as a civic organization. Watch our latest video in the series in which our executive director discusses our partnership with Vet The Vote as an example of civic engagement in action.

First Amendment & Social Media Censorship: Breaking Down NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton

First Amendment & Social Media Censorship: Breaking Down NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton

Social media platforms have become some of the most prominent arenas for debates over freedom of speech in recent years. While the First Amendment is intended to protect citizens from the government’s infringement of our rights to freedom of speech, the law is less clear about what role the First Amendment plays in protecting speech expressed on web-based platforms owned and operated by private companies like Meta (Facebook/Instagram), Twitter, TikTok, and the like. 

Recent rulings from the nation’s highest court may offer some insights on how the justices interpret the First Amendment as it applies to censorship on social media platforms.

On May 31, the Supreme Court granted an emergency stay request to tech industry companies that petitioned against the Texas Legislature’s House Bill 20. The bill, originally passed in September of 2021, would prohibit social media platforms from blocking, removing or somehow discriminating against users’ posts on the basis of political views. Notably, the Supreme Court implementation of this bill was blocked in a 5-4 decision by a surprising blend of liberal and conservative justices: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh, and Barrett (you can read Justice Alito’s reasons for dissenting here). 

While the question of the law’s constitutionality remains unresolved for now, the high court’s ruling means that the law will not be able to take effect while the case—NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton—continues through the Fifth U.S. Circuit of Court of Appeals.

Given the significance of this case for freedom of speech, let’s dive deeper into some* of the arguments presented by both sides to understand the potential implications for both the First Amendment and social media censorship.

*Note: This blog post covers only a fraction of the hundreds of documents filed for this case so far. It is not intended to be a comprehensive assessment of all arguments involved, but rather an overview of First Amendment-related arguments both for and against government regulation of social media companies, as well as the potential implications this case could have for freedom of speech.

Arguments Presented Against H.B. 20 

In the initial application to block the implementation of H.B. 20 filed on May 13, 2022, the applicants (NetChoice, LLC and the Computer and Communications Industry Association) presented several arguments related to three central claims about how H.B. 20 would. The first claim was that the bill would negatively impact business. The applicants explained this by saying, “because there is no ‘off-switch’ to platforms’ current operations, the cost of revamping the websites’ operations would undo years of work and billions of dollars spent on developing some platforms’ current systems” (p. 3). 

Their second claim was that H.B. 20 would lead to the proliferation of “objectionable viewpoints.” The applicants cited several high-profile examples from recent years including Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine, ISIS propaganda, pro-Holocaust content and posts encouraging disordered eating among children and adolescents.

Finally, the applicants claimed that this bill would infringe on editorial freedom of the platforms. They explained this saying the bill would, “impose] related burdensome operational and disclosure requirements designed to chill the millions of expressive editorial choices that platforms make each day” (p. 1).” Their supporting arguments for this claim repeatedly cited the Supreme Court precedent established by Reno v. ACLU (1997) to justify their arguments about social media companies’ editorial control over content published and disseminated on their websites. The applicants pointed out that all platforms have their own hate speech policies, and also “engage in speech they author themselves, through warning labels, disclaimers, links to related sources, and other commentary they deem important” (p. 8).

Amongst the many direct references to the First Amendment, the applicants cited Supreme Court precedents set by Tornillo, PG&E and Hurley to argue that the First Amendment “[protects] the rights of private entities (a newspaper with market power, a monopoly public utility, and parade organizers) not to disseminate speech generated by others (candidates, customers, and parade participants)” (p.19).

After the initial application was filed, multiple parties submitted additional supporting documents in the middle of May. In one such filing submitted on May 17, the summary of the applicants’ argument was as follows:

“HB20 will have an unprecedented detrimental effect on online platforms as we know them. It will transform social media platforms into online repositories of vile, graphic, harmful, hateful, and fraudulent content, of no utility to the individuals who currently engage in those communities. And it will flood otherwise useful web services with wasteful and irrelevant content. A single-sentence, unreasoned order is an unwarranted way to mandate this devolution.”

There were dozens of pages of documents filed on behalf of the applicants prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to issue the emergency stay order. For more detailed information on the applicants’ arguments, you can find them here.

Arguments in Favor of H.B. 20

On May 18, Attorney General of Texas Ken Paxton filed a response to the applicants. Some of the key arguments brought up by the respondent included: 

  • Citizens ought to be guaranteed access to the “modern public square” . The argument here is that removing content or blocking users on the basis of their expressed viewpoints may constitute an exclusion from the digital public sphere.
  • The “Hosting Rule” in H.B. 20 does not prohibit social media platforms from removing entire categories of content. For example, the respondent argued that these companies could ban all foreign government speech if they don’t want to host Russian propaganda about the invasion in Ukraine (as long as the content bans are applied equally). Furthermore, Paxton argued, H.B. 20 only applied to expressions shared or received in Texas specifically.
  • The “Hosting Rule” does not implicate the First Amendment because it “regulates conduct, not speech—specifically, the platforms’ discriminatory refusal to provide, or discriminatory reduction of, service to classes of customers based on viewpoint” (p. 21). The respondent also argued that, even if the First Amendment is implicated by H.B. 20, social media companies may be viewed as “common carriers” for communications because they “hold themselves open as willing to do business with all comers on equal terms; they are communications enterprises; they are demonstrably affected with a ‘public interest’; and they enjoy statutory limitations on liability” (p. 26). 
  • Social media companies have repeatedly claimed that they do not publish nor edit content (which offers them some legal immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996), but they allegedly contradicted themselves when arguing that “HB 20 limits their editorial discretion over user content in violation of the First Amendment” (p. 14).

First Amendment Issues to Consider in Wake of NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Supreme Court has not determined whether H.B. 20 infringes upon the First Amendment rights of social media companies. By granting the emergency stay request, the justices effectively blocked the law from taking effect while the lower courts continue to assess its constitutionality. This process could take several months to resolve, so in the meantime, we ask you to reflect on the following questions related to arguments presented by each side in NetChoice, LLC v. Paxton:

  1. If large social media platforms may be considered “common carriers” for public discourse, should they be required to host [what may be considered] hate speech and/or graphic content on their platforms? 
  2. By what standards should social media companies determine the acceptability of content published and/or disseminated on their platforms? In other words, how could these platforms realistically determine what is merely an expression of speech versus potentially/actually harmful content?
  3. Should internet-based, user-generated content platforms be held to the same rules and standards as print based news platforms? Should Supreme Court precedent arising from the unanimous decision in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo (1974) apply?
  4. Should we consider repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and hold social media companies liable for what their users publish or disseminate on their platforms? 

We welcome you to share your thoughts, insights or additional questions you have about this case in the comments section below this post!

Voter Suppression, Voter Fraud: What These Phenomena Mean for Our First Amendment Freedoms

Voter Suppression, Voter Fraud: What These Phenomena Mean for Our First Amendment Freedoms

Much of the hyper-polarized rhetoric in the U.S. in recent years has swirled around the issue of voting, such as the Electoral College’s capacity to override the popular vote in deciding the next president, the potential benefits of rank-choice voting, alarm over voter suppression tactics, claims of voter fraud, foreign interference in U.S. elections, and concerns over potential security risks with mail-in voting.

While there have been some attempts to bolster the security of our electoral system – an issue that both major political parties agree is a problem but disagree about the causes – legislation like the For the People Act (HB 1) have struggled to gain enough traction in Congress to actually pass. 

So, where do we go from here?

Since voting is an expression of free speech – as explained by legal scholars Armand Derfner and J. Gerald Hebert in their Yale Law and Policy Review article published in June 2016 – First Amendment Voice’s blog post today will focus on some recent research about voter suppression and voter fraud to shed some light on their implications for First Amendment rights as they pertain to voting.

Voter Suppression

Britannica defines voter suppression as “any legal or extralegal measure or strategy whose purpose or practical effect is to reduce voting, or registering to vote, by members of a targeted racial group, political party, or religious community.” 

As the Library of Congress points out, Black Americans have been subjected to the most severe and/or far-reaching voter suppression tactics throughout American history, including poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, violence and even the “grandfather clause” that prohibited someone from voting if their grandfather hadn’t voted (which prevented countless descendents of slaves from voting until the Supreme Court struck down the clause in its Guinn v. United States decision in 1915).

Today, voter suppression still exists in various forms, though polarized rhetoric surrounding elections and voting access has led some folks to claim that voter suppression is strictly a thing of the past. On the contrary, as NPR’s Marketplace explored in September 2020, voter suppression persists through stringent voter ID laws, fewer polling places and reduced hours, and greater barriers to vote-by-mail options. 

While there has been some debate over whether voter ID laws actually impact eligible voters’ ability to cast ballots, there is substantial evidence to support the argument that voter ID laws do prevent people from exercising their rights to vote. For instance, in the April 2017 edition of The Journal of Politics, an analysis of 50,000+ survey respondents in the Cooperative Congressional Election Study from 2008-2012 found that the implementation of voter ID laws led to significantly reduced turnout among Black, Latino and multiracial voters. 

Long distances to polling places can also function as a form of voter suppression, as illustrated by this October 2020 Pew Trusts analysis of polling issues in Halifax County, North Carolina. Elderly individuals, people with physical disabilities, and low-income or homeless individuals disproportionately lack the means to access transportation to the polls, especially in rural areas and on Native American reservations. Consider it this way: if you do not own a car, there’s no public transportation in your area or you can’t afford exorbitant gas prices to drive long distances, how can you exercise your right to vote? This is one of the reasons why vote-by-mail has been heralded as a solution to inadequate polling access (and has been widely available for several years prior to 2020 for members of the military serving overseas and in the state of Oregon).

For a more comprehensive overview of types of voter suppression, the Voting Rights Alliance has a list of 61 voter suppression tactics here.

It should also be noted that various forms of voter disenfranchisement still exist today, too. Voter disenfranchisement is typically more overt than voter suppression, as it refers to the removal of the right to vote. As this map shows, convicted felons are one of the biggest groups of disenfranchised voters in the U.S.; most states at least temporarily remove a felon’s right to vote and in some states, a felon permanently loses their right to vote (even after completing their prison sentence and probation). 

People with disabilities also experience disproportionately higher rates of voter suppression and disenfranchisement. Research from Pew Charitable Trusts in February 2018 found that nearly two-thirds of polling places inspected on election day in 2016 had at least one impediment for people with disabilities. The challenge of getting to a polling place was alleviated for some voters with physical disabilities in the 2020 election; thanks to the expansion of mail-in voting, 62% of people with disabilities voted in 2020 compared to 56% of the same demographic’s voter turnout in 2016. 

Meanwhile, 39 U.S. states still have “incompetence” laws in effect that prevent people with certain mental conditions like Down’s Syndrome or schizophrenia from voting altogether. This raises the question: if the First Amendment is intended to apply to everyone in the U.S., should there be a mental competency prerequisite for someone to be eligible for freedom of speech (i.e., the right to vote)?

Voter Fraud

We’ve heard a lot of claims about voter fraud in recent years, but how significant is this issue, in reality?

The Heritage Foundation – a conservative think-tank based in Washington D.C. – has compiled an Election Fraud Database with proven instances of voter fraud in the U.S. in elections since 1982. While the database isn’t a comprehensive list of all instances of voter fraud that may have occurred, it cites just over 1,350 proven incidents, 1,165 of which led to criminal convictions. Heritage reports the types of voter fraud may include: altering vote counts, ballot petition fraud, buying votes, duplicate voting, overturning elections, false registrations, fraudulent use of absentee ballots, impersonation at the polls, and ineligible voting.

After the 2020 Presidential election, in which former President Trump and some of his supporters alleged that tremendous voter fraud stole the election from Republicans, there remains a great deal of public debate over whether voter fraud is truly as widespread as it’s claimed to be. While it can certainly be challenging to identify and prosecute instances of voter fraud for myriad reasons, an in-depth analysis from Bloomberg Government in July 2021 suggests that voter fraud is not as prevalent as the rhetoric surrounding electoral integrity makes it seem. 

In some instances, voter “fraud” was either a misunderstanding due to voters’ confusion or even misreported cases of fraud. For example, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) and his team of 22 investigators found that approximately 1,000 people voted through absentee ballots and in-person at the polls for the 2020 election. However, most of those cases involved elderly voters who were confused by the vote-by-mail processes. Raffensperger’s team also found the allegations of “66,000 underage voters” to be false; these were simply 17-year-olds who had lawfully pre-registered to vote but did not cast a ballot in the election. Meanwhile, the claim of more than 10,000 deceased voters participating in the election was also proven false; just two ballots from deceased voters were identified after a rigorous investigation.

As Raffensperger summarized in an interview with Bloomberg Government, “People may not like the results. I understand that—I’m a Republican, I was disappointed, too. But at the end of the day those were the results.”

While there remain concerns over the newness and security of mail-in voting, it’s important to note that the practice of mail-in voting dates back to the Civil War (here’s a fascinating resource on the topic from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab). Furthermore, the article, “Does Voting by Mail Increase Fraud? Estimating the Change in Reported Voter Fraud When States Switch to Elections By Mail” published in the May 2021 edition of the journal of Statistics and Public Policy found no evidence of increased voter fraud risk from vote-by-mail processes.

Final Thoughts on Voter Suppression and Fraud

In a country with over 330 million people like the U.S., it’s enormously difficult to determine the true extent to which voter suppression and fraud are causing problems for both our electoral integrity and First Amendment rights as participants in democratic processes. Perhaps something that most people across the political spectrum can agree on is that we must do more to protect our rights to freedom of speech, of which voting is an integral component. 

Some solutions that have been proposed in recent years include:

  • Abolish the Electoral College and let the popular vote decide who will become the next President (fun fact: the Electoral College was almost abolished in 1970…until a filibuster in the Senate prevented it from gaining further traction)
  • Create a national holiday for elections or schedule voting day on Sundays to allow more people to vote without having to miss work (read more about the pros and cons of this proposal) 
  • Establish mail-in voting as a permanent option even after the pandemic to expand access to voting for people with disabilities, elderly individuals, low-income people with limited means of transportation and residents of rural communities (as of 2022, only eight states allow for mail-in voting in all elections)
  • Implement rank-choice voting to expand voters’ options beyond the stringent 2-party-dominated system we currently have (check out Ballotpedia’s guide on rank-choice voting to learn more about how it works)
  • Increase voting access for Native Americans, who experience voter suppression due to long driving distances to polls from their communities and some states rejecting their voter registration applications due to tribal IDs and/or reservation addresses (the Native American Voting Rights Act of 2021 is Congress’ latest attempt to resolve these issues)
  • Lowering the voting age to 16 (FairVote – a nonpartisan nonprofit advocacy organization – has a great resource explaining why this could be a great idea)
  • Restore felons’ voting rights after serving their prison sentences (something Florida added to its Constitution in 2018)

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: Implications for Essential Democratic Freedoms Worldwide

Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: Implications for Essential Democratic Freedoms Worldwide

If you’ve watched or read the news lately, then you know it’s next to impossible to check on what’s happening in the world without coming across a story or video about Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. As many as 6.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced so far in the conflict, and the brutal suppression of key freedoms like free speech, free press and peaceful assembly goes completely against the principles of democracy.

But amidst the chaos, conflict, uncertainty and tragedy, there is also hope. There have been numerous stories of brave Ukrainians standing their ground, fighting for their independence from Russia in the face of incredible danger. At First Amendment Voice, we believe that these core democratic freedoms are of utmost importance to protect; not just in the U.S. but abroad as well. In this special blog post, we will examine how the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly have been impacted since the start of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. 

Freedom of Speech

Sunflowers, the Symbols of Resistance: One of the most common symbols of peace in Ukraine’s history is the sunflower, which also represents the unofficial national flower of Ukraine. On February 24 of this year, sunflowers became a widely-recognized symbol of resistance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, thanks to a viral video of a Ukrainian woman telling a Russian soldier to “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets, so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.” Since then, sunflowers have appeared everywhere from emojis and beautiful artwork shared by artists on social media to fundraisers for Ukraine humanitarian aid, like these recent fundraising campaigns in Canada.

How Russia’s Invasion Could Impact Free Expression in Democracies Worldwide: In a fascinating interview with John M. Owen, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, Owen explained how freedom of expression and tolerance of dissenting views are essential ingredients for a healthy democracy. When asked what lessons that Americans and other citizens of democratic countries could learn from the events in Ukraine and Russia, Owen responded:

“Such events drive home to us that individual liberty is a precious achievement that can be taken away or weakened, even in the 21st century….As tensions with Russia mount in our own country, one thing to guard against is the tendency to do, in mirror-image fashion, what Russia is doing – to censor dissent, particularly dissent that favors Russia. Democracies must remain democratic, even under stress.”

Elon Musk Refuses to Block Russian Media from Starlink: Speaking of censorship, Elon Musk has made headlines multiple times during the conflict; at first, for providing Starlink satellite internet access for some parts of Ukraine, and later, for refusing to block Russian state media on the Starlink platform. Musk referred to himself as a “free speech absolutist” when tweeting about the decision, though some sources pointed out that Musk doesn’t seem to have the best track record when it comes to critiques from journalists and his own employees. 

Freedom of the Press

Social Media Companies’ Responses to the Russia Invasion of Ukraine: A recent Q&A report from Human Rights Watch conducts an in-depth exploration of the roles in which social media platforms and messaging apps have played in mitigating misinformation about the present conflict. One of the many important findings from HRW’s report stated:

“Since February 24, companies providing social media and messaging services have taken many steps in response to the war in Ukraine, most of them aimed at countering harmful disinformation, adding labels to or blocking state-sponsored or state-affiliated media, or introducing extra safety measures. Some of these measures apply to either Ukraine or Russia, some apply in the EU only, and some apply globally. Some decisions were made in response to government requests, some in defiance of government requests, and others in response to public pressure, or at the companies’ own initiative.”

For more information on global perspectives about social media and disinformation, view HRW’s full-length report linked above and don’t miss this 2021 report from the United Nations as well. 

Putin Threatens 15 Years’ Imprisonment for Publishing or Broadcasting “False Information” About the Invasion: A March report from NPR described a new law Putin recently signed that would impose a 15-year prison sentence on those convicted of publishing or broadcasting information deemed “false” by the Russian government. Concerningly, the law outlaws the use of words like “invasion” or “war” in media, which would effectively silence dissent from critics in Russia. 

Bravery of Journalists in Conflict Zones: An eye-opening feature from Nieman Reports reviewed several instances of Ukrainian journalists reporting under incredibly challenging and life-threatening circumstances, despite the post-Soviet era instability in press freedoms and severely limited funding that have impacted their work for years. As Nieman Reports pointed out, “The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a powerful reminder of the vital work these journalists and their newsrooms do — and how precarious press freedoms are in the face of aggression from Putin and other authoritarian leaders around the world.”

Freedom of Assembly

Global Peace Protests in Support of Ukraine: From the sunflower-adorned BELIEVE sign gathering in Reno, Nevada to the courageous Russians protesting within their own country (and being detained, in many cases), there are countless examples of people coming together to support Ukraine and speak out against Russia’s military invasion. As these photos from Global Citizen demonstrate, people all over the world are engaging in peaceful assembly to call for an end to Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine. 

Anti-Protest Crackdowns in Kyrgyzstan: Although the Kyrgyzstani Constitution and Civil Code presumably protect freedom of assembly and protest, the government has recently cracked down on protestors coming together in support of Ukraine. As The Diplomat points out, Kyrgyzstan is reliant on Russia’s economic and security resources, hence the reason why Kyrgyzstani government leaders appear to be striving for neutrality in the present conflict. Since the conflict began, protestors have been subject to fines and even arrested for peacefully protesting, which prompted Human Rights Watch to issue a statement demanding the end of anti-protest restrictions.

Final Thoughts on the Freedoms of Speech, Press and Assembly

As of this moment, we do not know how or when Russia will end its invasion of Ukraine. What we do know is that we must fight harder than ever to preserve our democratic liberties like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and other freedoms enshrined in our First Amendment. Ukraine may be thousands of miles away from the U.S., but it’s clear that these freedoms must be protected and fought for globally.

Want to learn more about the impacts of foreign policy on First Amendment freedoms? Be sure to check out this captivating conversation from First Amendment Voice’s 2020 National Symposium.