The Return of Book-Banning – and even Book-Burning

In February 2022, Tennessee churchgoers hurled "demonic" books like Twilight and Harry Potter into a large bonfire in a Nashville suburb. This modern-day book burning occurred amidst a massive surge of bans by public school boards and state governments of books dealing with LGBTQ+ themes and communities of color. Image Credit

Tragedy in Charlottesville

In August 2017, Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist and anti-Semitic militants gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to “Unite the Right.” Violence ensued, with one counterprotester dead and many injured, leaving painful dilemmas surrounding Free Speech. Image Credit

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., United States, on April 10, 2018.

All Eyes on Facebook

The social network Facebook has come under intense criticism in the past decade, as journalists exposed its mishandling of users’ data, invasion of millions of people’s privacy, and inability to moderate hate speech online. The founder of the social media giant, Mark Zuckerberg, testified before Congress in April 2018, facing questions from lawmakers on these and related issues. Image Credit

Bryce Green, 12, center, takes part in a Black Lives Matter protest march with his friend Danilo Petrovic, 13, right, and others Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Seattle. Several thousand people attended a downtown rally and then marched to the federal courthouse to call attention to minority rights and police brutality. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement, which grew out of police shootings of young, unarmed black men, has been involved in Free Speech controversies, especially on college campuses. Here, supporters of the movement march in Chicago. Image Credit

protesters clash outside of UC Berkeley during Free Speech protest

UC Berkeley Protest

The UC Berkeley campus is still at the epicenter of Free Speech controversies in U.S. higher education. Here we see a pause during a recent face-off between opposing factions in the struggle over who should or should not speak at Berkeley. Image Credit

Sign wielding activists stand march at anti-abortion rally

The Fight Over Abortion

The debate over abortion has brought protests to statehouses across the country, to the U.S. Congress, and to the Supreme Court. Here, a pro-abortion rights demonstrator stands among anti-abortion activists at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Image Credit

A crowd of people demonstrate in Strasbourg, France, holding a sign that says "We are all Charlie" in many languages.

Solidarity With Charlie Hebdo

On Jan. 7, 2015, two gunmen who pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen opened fire at the offices of Parisian satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 staff members, including its director, and injuring 11 others. The shooting was seemingly in retribution for cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad. The rally shown here, in Strasbourg, was one of many demonstrations worldwide in solidarity with the victims. Image Credit

Edward Snowden appears on the cover of Wired Magazine, clutching an American flag and looking off into the distance.

Edward Snowden's Pivotal Disclosures

Edward Snowden, a former intelligence contractor, leaked classified National Security Agency documents to the press in 2013 that revealed wide-ranging government electronic surveillance programs directed at Americans and foreign persons. Now exiled in Russia for fear of retribution from the U.S. government, Snowden has been both celebrated as a hero and maligned as an alleged traitor. Image Credit

member of Westboro baptist church surrounded by protest signs in basement

Church-Inspired Hate

Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, poses with signs his family used at military funerals to oppose growing tolerance for LGBTQ rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in 2011 that even such “outrageous speech” is protected. Image Credit

family members and protesters holding anti-surveillance signs

Post-9/11 Surveillance of Muslim Americans

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States inaugurated an era of surveillance by law enforcement against American Muslims. Here, in 2013, Muslims protest a now-defunct New York Police Department program that secretly labeled mosques as terrorist organizations and sent plain-clothes officers to infiltrate Muslim spaces, including university student groups. Image Credit

A man burns a U.S. flag in Copenhagen, Denmark to protest the arrival of U.S. President George W. Bush Tuesday July 5, 2005.

Burning the Flag

The landmark Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, decided in 1989, invalidated prohibitions and punishments in that state for the desecration of “venerable objects.” The Texas law had been challenged when a self-described communist, Gregory Lee Johnson, burned a flag at a protest during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. Image Credit

Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg stands in front of a podium as he answers questions from the media.

The Pentagon Papers

The public disclosure by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg of a Pentagon study demonstrating government officials had lied to the American public about U.S. involvement in Vietnam for decades challenged the prevailing notion that national security could trump Free Speech. Ellsberg, shown here, leaked the information in 1971, first to The New York Times and later to The Washington Post and other media. Image Credit

Tinker family standing outside of home

The Tinker Family

In a landmark 1969 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Tinker children of Des Moines, Iowa, were engaging in protected symbolic speech when they wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam war and could not be expelled for doing so. Image Credit

Close up of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the phone after delivering a sermon at the Washington Episcopal Cathedral.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI

The civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. underwent intense surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which began monitoring him in 1955, on the occasion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and in the 1960s conducted extensive covert actions against him. J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director at the time, became increasingly hostile toward King, who he believed was influenced by communists in his criticisms of the FBI. Image Credit

Mario Savio with his right hand raised in front of a crowd of students at UC Berkeley.

Rise of the Free Speech Movement

The modern focus on free expression on U.S. college campuses began at the University of California at Berkeley. Here, in 1964, Mario Savio exhorts his companions in the Free Speech Movement to rise up and protest campus restrictions on public speech. Image Credit

U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds both hands over microphones as he speaks to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during a hearing of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington April 22, 1954. The subcommittee was looking into McCarthy's dispute with top Army officials.

Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn

In the 1950s, in a sustained assault on Free Speech, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) investigated the political beliefs of Americans. Here, he consults his young aide Roy Cohn, later a mentor to Donald Trump, who became president in 2017. Image Credit

Anarchists, communists, and radicals who were rounded up in New York City during the Palmer Raids in January 1929, sit waiting on benches at Ellis Island, as they await investigation and deportation proceedings.

The Palmer Deportations

During the Red Scare of the 1920s, President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, conducted large-scale raids against mostly Italian and East European immigrants suspected of having ties to international communist and anarchist movements. More than 500 leftists, such as those pictured here, were deported. Image Credit

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Pitched battles in the streets of Berkeley, California, as rival factions fight over who should be allowed to speak at one of America’s great public universities. A faculty member seriously injured on the idyllic campus of Middlebury College in Vermont as violence erupts at a talk by a controversial visitor. The staff of the main newspaper in Maryland’s capital devastated by a shooter pursuing “the enemies of the people.” These incidents represent just a few of the ways Free Speech is threatened in the United States today. The Free Speech Project at Georgetown University works to document and analyze such threats through its flagship enterprise, the Free Speech Tracker.

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Track Free Speech

Everyday, the First Amendment is exercised, tested, and debated in countless ways. The Free Speech Tracker provides a glimpse of the controversies sweeping public and private spaces, from college campuses to state capitols. Our map permits visualization of national trends, and summaries of each incident or legislative development reveal the issues at stake.

Go to the tracker