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The First Amendment’s Forgotten Protection: The Right to Receive Information

Kaitlyn Schiraldi
Staff Attorney

April 19, 2024

People often lament, “well, we didn’t know about that back then.” Is this a product of ignorance or merely a product of selective publication of information? After NCLA clients Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Dr. Martin Kulldorff, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, Jill Hines, and their co-plaintiffs uncovered the egregious partnership of social media companies and the government in Murthy v. Missouri, one must wonder just how long one-sided hoarding of information and censorship has permeated our culture to shape a particular narrative.

What most fail to realize is that the First Amendment protects not only the right of the speaker to speak, but also the right of the listener “to receive information and ideas.” While the right to speak is immensely important, that right is a nullity if the audience cannot hear it because the government suppressed, de-boosted, or censored it. As it turns out, a monopoly on information is not a new phenomenon. Murthy v. Missouri is just history repeated and repackaged as a digital variation. 

Well before the digital age, “telegraph dispatches from reporters at battlefield scenes were censored” during the Civil War and “newspaper reporters and editors were arrested in the Union if they wrote about opposing the draft or discouraged enlisting in the army.”

During World War II, one mind-mastering tactic of the Nazi regime was to shut down or take over anti-Nazi newspapers, thereby “controlling what news appeared in newspapers, on the radio, and in newsreels.” 

In the 1950s, when scientific studies blasted the tobacco industry for its cancer-causing products, the industry one-upped the scientific community—“seizing and controlling science rather than avoiding it.” What was the goal? “The public must get the message that the issue of the health effects of smoking remains an open question.” The public fell for it, resulting among other things in pregnant women continuing to smoke well into the 1960s.

In 1972, the SEC implemented a gag provision in its settlement agreements that prevents those who settle from casting a negative light on the SEC or the merits of its case. This marked a First Amendment death sentence, executed by the SEC, shielding from the public information about SEC cases that the agency prefers to keep hidden.

Most recently, First Amendment scholar Professor Philip Hamburger discussed the harms of not hearing a particular message on the COVID shot. In fact, many Americans were not offered a full panoply of evidence to determine whether the shot was right for them, and more than a few subsequently died after taking it. The gaping hole in information surrounding such a rapidly produced “vaccine” surely deserves some of the blame. 

1 Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969).

These are just a few instances of the government (or large corporations) wiping out entire hemispheres of the public collective brain and forcing a myopic view. Why is the right to hear just as important as the right to speak? The government does not get to determine that the American people are incapable of sorting the wheat from the chaff. 

With only partial information, citizens cannot make fully informed decisions. Without the ability to make informed decisions, citizens cannot validly give their consent. Without consent, “consent of the governed” is a hollow statement. Abridging the right to receive information dulls our intuition and lets government step in as a parens patriae, pretending to be an all-knowing and caring surrogate parent. We must not forget that the First Amendment allows us to hear from the experts, the idiots, and the common man alike in order to find the truth.