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 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.
In March 2018, hundreds of thousands of young people walked out of school and marched on their local statehouses and on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to advocate for stricter controls on gun sales and ownership. The March for Our Lives was initially organized by students at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a school shooting had killed 17 students. Collectively, the marches were the largest-ever protest against gun violence, and one of the largest protests of any kind in American history.
The growing consensus over the need for some “common-sense” gun laws to regulate the sale and ownership of firearms stands in sharp contrast to the incendiary rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which has sounded the alarm in recent years that Democrats are coming to “take away” guns or institute a national registry of firearm ownership. Indeed, the reasonableness on both sides of the debate implies that there is a middle-ground that can be achieved to limit gun violence in the United States, while still allowing for responsible ownership of firearms for hunting, sport shooting, and personal protection.
Starting with the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, and gaining steam throughout the next decade, the prevailing view on criminal justice was that “tough on crime laws make crime rates go down.” That sentiment was predicated on the notion that criminals were not being sufficiently punished for their offenses, and that sentences must be increased—including mandatory minimums and “three strikes laws”—both to remove criminals from communities, and to deter others from committing crimes. The incarceration rate more than tripled between 1980 and its peak in 2008, from 310 to 1,000 prisoners per 100,000 adults—some 2.3 million people in all. Today, the United States leads the world in incarceration, with a rate more than 4 times that of comparable democracies in Western Europe.
Reform of the criminal justice system must take into account each stage of the process, respecting the due process rights of individuals throughout their interaction with the system while at the same time bringing criminals to justice and improving overall public safety.
“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