Restricting Speech to Protect It

Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Media and Content and Privacy and Security

Article Snapshot


Susan Brison and Danielle Citron


Free Speech in the Digital Age, Susan Brison and Katharine Gelber, eds., Oxford University Press, 2019


Attitudes to cyber harassment have changed. Lawmakers, law enforcement officers, and the public recognize that online stalking, threats, and “revenge porn” interferes with victim’s ability to speak and engage online.

Policy Relevance

In the last decade, laws have been passed to address cyber harassment. These legal remedies are necessary to protect the rights of victims of cyber abuse.

Main Points

  • Decades ago, even when individuals were subjected to threats of rape, denial-of-service attacks, or threats online; victims were expected to tolerate abuse.

  • Some incorrectly argued that legal intervention to stop cyber harassment would jeopardize the Internet’s role as a public forum; abusive speech online does not warrant more protection than abusive speech in the workplace or in coffee shops.

  • Today, law enforcement officers and the general public realize how much online abuse interferes with victims’ ability to speak and engage online.

  • Since 2006, new federal and state laws have been passed to address cyber stalking and harassment; however, at first, law enforcement officials lacked the will, training, and resources to enforce those laws.

  • As of 2014, legislators, law enforcement officers, and regulators have initiated key prosecutions of revenge porn site operators.

  • Civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have recognized that intervention against abuse speech online is a necessary precondition to free expression; cyber harassment typically involves threats, defamation, extortion, and blackmail, categories of speech that receive little or no first amendment protection.

  • Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter have taken steps to address the posting of nude images without the consent of the subject.

  • Combatting cyber harassment is good for free expression because it prevents abuse that would otherwise silence victims.

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