Old Wine in New Wineskins: The First Amendment and the Internet

By Gourley, Bruce T. | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Old Wine in New Wineskins: The First Amendment and the Internet


Gourley, Bruce T., Baptist History and Heritage


Standing atop the amendments to the United States Constitution, the venerable First Amendment faces opportunities and challenges in the twenty-first century that were unimagined a mere two decades ago, much less two centuries ago.

The Internet, a public medium in terms of the creation and dissemination of information, now stands at the intersection of information and freedom of speech. In addition, the Internet as a medium of mass communication provides both challenges and opportunities for reexamination of the separation of church and state, a core principle of our Baptist heritage that impacts religion and public life at large.

Too whit, the first thirteen years of public Internet history (1995 to the present) call into question the survival of First Amendment fights as understood since their conceptualization in the very non-digital, late eighteenth century. During this thirteen-year span, previously unframed questions challenging the pillars of the First Amendment have arisen. At the same time, the introduction and growth of the Internet have provided new tools that have been utilized to both support and oppose First Amendment fights. On a positive note, the Internet enables new levels of public participation and interest in the rights covered by the First Amendment. Conversely, the new level of information dissemination empowered by the Internet parallels growing opposition to First Amendment rights. (1)

In order to understand the point at which the digital world intersects the sphere of the First Amendment, a cursory examination of the primary communication methodologies throughout human history is helpful. The spoken word (or oral tradition) served as the first human communication platform. Although sufficient in early ancient times, the spoken word was entirely dependent upon human memory in order for that which was verbalized to be recorded for use at a later time. Contracts, family history, and tribal myths remained at the mercy of the human mind and the biases, agendas, creativity, and loyalties that shaped the process of remembering.

The shortcomings of dependency upon the spoken word were obvious, and eventually humans transitioned to a more reliable communication platform: the written word. While verbalization remained an important and necessary component of human communication, the written word became the formal, and more reliable, mode of preserving history, framing contracts, hammering out peace treaties, and the like. While the medium of writing has changed over the years--progressing from rock, animal skins, and papyrus to modern paper--the primacy of writing as a means of communication remains unchallenged. Within this context, the First Amendment originated in the late eighteenth century. Although initially verbalized, the words that comprise the First Amendment did not obtain power until they were committed to written form. Today, we recite those words from the written record, words that recognize both the importance of the printed word (by referencing "press" and "petition") and the spoken word (in reference to assembly).

Whereas the spoken and written word served humanity well in centuries past, the twentieth century witnessed the arrival of a new communication platform: the digital domain. Unlike verbalization or writing, digital data, although created (or "coded") by humans, depends upon computers to read and present the data in a useable manner. Originating in the 1940s and rudimentary in the decades immediately following, the world of digital data did not directly impact the masses until the 1980s, the decade that the term "computer" finally became a household word. Today, digital data underpins every aspect of modern society, including personal computers (the most common means of writing), telephone calls, music and video recordings, bank accounts, retail transactions, store inventories, stock markets, automobiles, and much more. …

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