Reflection: The Safety-Valve Justification in the digital age

By Lillie Eastham, F/G Scholar

The Safety-Valve Justification theory is unique among First Amendment theories because it is purely pragmatic (Gey, 2008) . It does not subscribe to the same idealism as other theories that claim that freedom of speech eventually leads to the truth and an overall stronger and more educated public. Instead, it argues that freedom of speech acts as a literal safety valve, so that people who feel alienated from larger society are able to air their frustrations without becoming violent or revolutionary. In this way, freedom of speech is used to protect the general public from those on the fringe of society.

This theory remains relevant in the digital age as citizens try to navigate a world in which all opinions can be dispersed to millions with the push of a button. In fact, a new kind of ‘safety valve’ has developed that helps people to evade injustices that they feel the government has brought upon them. For example, although the government is not a fan of WikiLeaks, their releases of confidential documents might dissuade citizens from seeking out the information themselves because they feel that they know enough. (Malcom 4) The internet certainly provides average citizens with a large audience to which they can express their issues with the government. Some might say that this makes the safety valve more effective because people can feel satisfied knowing that their ideas are being heard.

On the other hand, this can lead to potentially dangerous situations, especially when citizens begin to spread “socially worthless untruths,” as Gey puts it. When Info-Wars reported that Hillary Clinton was “sexually abusing children in satanic rituals” (Robb 2017) in a pizza place, one user took the baseless claims to heart and arrived at the restaurant armed with two guns and a knife. Before social media ‘Pizza Gate’ might have been put in a small, radical publication and would have not spread nearly as far. Technological advancements take away from the Safety-Valve Justification because even if the original publisher does not intend for their words to have a revolutionary effect and is only trying to ‘blow off steam,’ once the ideas are on the internet they can easily be seen by someone who is willing to act.

Some disagree with the Safety-Valve Justification because they believe that it is the job of the legislature, not the courts, to decide what system is appropriate to allow “dissidents to vent their social frustrations,” according to Gey. It is also argued by Gey that, as shown by the ‘Pizza Gate’ incident, that this theory does not account for the dangers of allowing people to spread known falsehoods disguised as facts.

This theory is interesting because it takes some of the meaning away from protesting. It takes all of the lofty idealism out of freedom of speech and leaves us with the idea that it is not a means with which to find truth or support a democracy, but simply a practical necessity. In this way, protests become more of a way for someone to give themselves peace of mind, as opposed to an actual way to bring about tangible change. While it sounds harsh, although protests might capture the media’s attention for a day, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to realizing legitimate policy change. (Wilson 2016) This theory is more transparent with the public that, realistically, they must do more than just protest to achieve their goals.

The Safety-Valve Justification theory states that freedom of speech is not just a noble ideal, but a political necessity to ensure that the masses do not become revolutionary. In modern times, this theory can fall flat due to the ease of spreading false information which can lead to real-world consequences. However, if it is acknowledged and applied by citizens it can help them to achieve their political goals more efficiently.

Gey, Stephen. (2008). “The First Amendment and the Dissemination of Socially Worthless Untruths.” Florida State Law Review, 36(1), 1-22.

Malcom, Jeremy. “Online Freedom of Expression: Edge Cases and Safety Valves.”, 2012,

Robb, Amanda. “Pizzagate: Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018, scandal-125877/.

Wilson, Christopher. “Finding Lessons for Today’s Protests in the History of Political Activism.”, Smithsonian Institution, 6 Dec. 2016, history-political-activism-180961309/.

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