Capitol Ideas column: Let's put heightened political interest to good use close to home

The Cedar Rapids City Council chamber at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cedar Rapi
The Cedar Rapids City Council chamber at City Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

If my inbox and family phone conversations are any indication, interest in politics increased significantly during former President Donald Trump’s four years in office.

Here’s hoping that interest not only remains, but begins to spread beyond the White House to not only Congress, but our state capitols and city halls.

For better or worse, Trump’s time in office certainly spiked interest in presidential politics. It’s admittedly anecdotal evidence that I present, but speaking as someone whose primary reporting responsibilities are state government and politics, I was far more likely over the past four years to receive reader correspondence about Trump, even if the story only contained a passing mention of the former president.

I also became the go-to political expert in my family. Years and years of phone calls that had been mostly about sports suddenly were mostly about politics, and mostly about Trump. And you know what? I think that’s a good thing. I know a lot of people get tired of political discussions, but I wish more people talked politics. We just need to figure out a way to talk about it without getting into shouting matches.

It would be even better if this heightened political awareness spread to other areas of government, sort of like trickle-down political interest.

Presidential politics are important, obviously. But if a lot of Americans are just now fine-tuning their political dial, it would be even better for the country if they also flipped the channel to also pay more attention to their members of Congress, and to their state lawmakers and governors, and to their mayors and city council members.

The White House and the president often get the most attention, but government rubber hits the road closest to home. So if you’re a newcomer to this space from the past four years, brought here by a newly sparked interest in politics, I heartily encourage you to also devote some time consuming news about your local and state governments. The elected officials and agencies there are doing the work that has the most direct impact on your everyday life, much more so than most of the stuff that’s happening out in Washington, D.C.

And when I write about those things, I’ll happily receive emails and phone calls from family members about those state and local issues, too.

Constitutional clarification

I’ll concede this probably irks me more than it does most folks, and the reason probably is obvious. But folks, unfortunately it’s time to say it again:

Freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not apply to private companies.

Free speech gets violated in all kinds of spaces, if you listen to people who clearly do not understand the Constitution. For example, some people complained their free speech rights were violated when some media sites turned off the comment sections after articles.

The latest, most prevalent example of functional misunderstanding of the First Amendment is the surge of claims that social media companies are violating free speech by suspending the accounts of extremist groups or former President Donald Trump.

That’s not how the First Amendment works.

The First Amendment says that Congress can make no laws that suppress speech. In other words, Congress or the Iowa Legislature cannot pass laws that infringe upon the people’s right to express themselves.

The First Amendment does not govern private companies’ policies. Twitter and any other social media company are free to create and enforce guidelines that regulate its users. Enforcing those policies is in no way a violation of the Constitution.

If conservatives want to argue that some social media and internet companies have an outsized influence in their spaces and suggest that’s a problem, that’s a debate worth having. But please, take it from someone whose profession is literally guaranteed by it, let’s stop misusing the First Amendment and remember what it actually does — and doesn’t do.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His column appears Monday in The Gazette. Reach him at erin.murphy@lee.net and follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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