The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy serves as the hub of the Harvard Kennedy School’s research, teaching, and training in the human rights domain. The center embraces a dual mission: to educate students and the next generation of leaders from around the world in human rights policy and practice; and to convene and provide policy-relevant knowledge to international organizations, governments, policymakers, and businesses.
The complicated relationship of religion and government predates the founding of the United States. The Founders grappled with this dilemma for years before compromising on the final language of the First Amendment. Even then, the issue was far from settled: the US has struggled since its founding to reconcile the right of religious freedom with the reality of governing a pluralist democracy with an increasingly diverse population.
Today, a struggle over the scope of religious freedom is taking place in politics, the courts, and across American society. Claims of religious freedom are increasingly receiving preferential treatment in both political discourse and in the courts when religious beliefs come into conflict with other rights. That is particularly true for women’s reproductive rights and the rights of individuals to non-discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity.
At the same time, a controversy has emerged over the meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, in which recent Supreme Court cases have pitted the prohibition on establishment of religion against the right of religious free exercise. The central question over religious rights today is how to strike an appropriate balance between rights when they come into conflict. This question has troubled the American Republic since its formation.
The crisis of American democracy that burst into view on January 6 is rooted in our country’s long history of racism. To begin the work of repair, President Biden issued executive orders undoing many of the policies of the Trump administration and breaking new ground, like ending private prison contracts and embedding racial equity analysis in the federal bureaucracy. As important and welcome as these actions are, they are not enough. A crucial mistake recurs in American history: trying to move forward without reckoning honestly with injustice. We have an opportunity to break this pattern of forgetting. Remembrance and repair are not just morally necessary—they are the keys to saving our fragile multiracial democracy. Here we offer a plan to undertake that vital work.
The First Amendment guarantees some of the most fundamental rights provided to Americans under the Constitution. The right to free expression is a foundational tenet of American values. In fact, it was the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the press that provided much of the basis for the revolution that led to America’s founding. The First Amendment provides broad protection from government censure of speech, although limitations on some forms of published or broadcast speech, such as obscenity and hate speech, have been allowed.
As the traditional public square governed and protected by federal regulation moves online to spaces governed by private corporations, the rules for how speech is both expressed and censored are also changing. How should legal protections for speech adapt to these new tech-powered, private forums? This chapter will explore the current landscape of free speech and the associated information landscape as well as the threats that they face.
“The Carr Center is building a bridge between ideas on human rights and the practice on the ground. Right now we are at a critical juncture. The pace of technological change and the rise of authoritarian governments are both examples of serious challenges to the flourishing of individual rights. It’s crucial that Harvard and the Kennedy School continue to be a major influence in keeping human rights ideals alive. The Carr Center is a focal point for this important task.”
- Mathias Risse