Protests and Free Speech

Since protests began on Dec. 28, 2017, Iran has seen what CNN is calling “the largest public display of discontent in Iran since the 2009 Green Movement.”

Reasons for these protests vary, but multiple news sources such as CNN, Wired and Forbes agreed that Iran’s economic state was a contributor. After coming to an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program in 2015, the U.N. lifted sanctions on the country. However, many businesses in the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, France and Germany still refused to work with Iranian companies.

In July of 2017, Iran facilitated a rocket launch that officials said had breached the agreement with the U.N. Security Council, prompting the U.S. Treasury Department to institute new sanctions on six Iranian satellite companies. This fresh controversy, coupled with Iran’s unemployment rate (over 24 percent for men ages 15-29, and even higher for women, according to CNN), has resulted in widespread unrest within Iranian borders.

The protests attracted attention from countries all over the world, in part because of the restrictions that Iranian officials placed on public internet access. Reports state that sites like Instagram and Twitter were blocked, along with messaging apps like Telegram. CNN estimates that affected an estimated 40 million people–nearly half of Iran’s population.

This action in particular has started conversations about what human rights – in particular, free speech – that governments should not be able to take away from their people.

In the United States, this right is protected by the first amendment to the Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In the U.S., it’s generally understood that the government gains its power from the people rather than vice versa.

In 2017, we saw the power of organized protests in action following the election of President Donald Trump. Some protested the man himself, creating the popular phrase “Not my president.”

Others participated in protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, the March for Science, or the Women’s March on Washington–a movement that took place the day after Trump’s inauguration and became the largest protest in U.S. history, with over half a million people participating.

For each of those protests, the internet played an essential part in organizing participants. The use of hashtags on Twitter, the creation of Facebook groups, and Instagram Live feeds saw heavy use during the early weeks of the year. However, unlike what was seen in Iran, the U.S. government did not take steps to shut down these groups or hide evidence of their existence online.

This does have the potential to change with the recent introduction of the Net Neutrality bill by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which would allow internet providers to block certain sites or charge a premium for certain levels of online access. However, even this bill has seen significant backlash by both state and federal legislature.

While the U.S. isn’t a perfect country by any means, and the government’s response to these protests wasn’t exactly conversational, the people’s right to organize using the platforms available to them was still recognized and respected. The same can’t be said for the protesters in Iran, over 3,700 of whom were detained by law enforcement according to Wired.

The fact remains that citizens of any country should have the right to protest against things that they disagree with in their government. If officials won’t listen when citizens contact their representatives, or if a government exercises dictatorial power over its people, then it only makes sense for people to take visible action to make themselves heard.

Story by
Megan Fairbanks

Photo By
Chris Slupski for SUU News