The Overblown Backlash Against Peter Thiel for Destroying Gawker

The news that pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker has been financed by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has sparked many opinions, some of them erroneous, some duplicitous, and some deeply shameful.

Before providing examples of each, a little background.  In 2007, Valleywag, a now-defunct blog site then owned by Gawker Media, outed Thiel, against his express wishes, as a homosexual.  Though he is in fact gay, Thiel was angry about this, and angry too about what he saw, and sees, as Gawker’s bullying journalism in its coverage of Silicon Valley’s tech industry.

For some apparent combination of these reasons, Thiel subsequently offered to covertly pay for Hogan’s legal fees in connection with the wrestler’s invasion of privacy suit against Gawker.  The gravamen of Hogan’s suit is that Gawker published online a secretly taped video of Hogan having sex with the wife of a friend of his.  At trial the jury awarded Hogan $140 million.

So right off the bat a couple of things are clear: Neither Hogan’s lawsuit nor Thiel’s payment of his legal fees are First Amendment issues, despite allegations to that effect in stories published by such as the New York Times>> Read More

Maines is president of The Media Institute.  The opinions expressed are his alone and not those of The Media Institute, its board, advisory councils, or contributors.  The full version of this article appeared in The Daily Caller on June 9, 2016.

Campus Protests and Blatant Attacks on Free Speech

The blatant attacks on free speech seen recently on college campuses pose a special challenge to Democrats and liberals.  This, because the illiberalism inherent in the conjuring up by campus progressives of things like “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and “safe spaces” is an outgrowth of the identity politics and victim culture that have been promoted by Democrats and liberals generally.

Take, for instance, immigration and our changing racial demographics.  In a demonstration of the most corrosive kind of stereotyping, Democratic strategists like Stanley Greenberg triumphantly wave the “demographics is destiny” meme like a sword.  Whether there is any predictive value in Greenberg’s recent claim that racial minorities are “supporting Hillary Clinton by more than 2 to 1 in today’s polls,” how is it helpful to profile them as bloc voters, politically defined by their ethnicity?

Are not Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans interested in having for themselves and their families secure middle-class lives?  And if so, might not some, perhaps many of them, come to see the governmental nostrums promoted by Democrats as being inimical to their ambitions?

The demographics-is-destiny meme crosses into the preposterous in the hands of people like the dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Chris Matthews….  >> Read More

                                   

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.  The full version of this article appeared in The Hill on Nov. 25, 2015.

Free Speech Week: Time To Celebrate, Time To Reflect

As Free Speech Week gets underway today, it’s a good time to celebrate this fundamental freedom (as the week is intended to do) – but it’s also a good time to reflect on the state of free speech in America today.  Even the most cursory reflection, however, is sure to give one pause.

Freedom of speech remains under assault on many fronts.  And most people, when they think of free speech, think of the First Amendment. But it’s important to draw a distinction here.  The First Amendment only protects speech that is threatened by government control, and thus laws and regulations seeking to limit speech can be subjected to First Amendment challenges in the courts.

Paradoxically, however, the gravest threats to free speech today aren’t coming from government lawmakers and regulators, but from non-government groups and individuals who want to stifle the speech of others.  That type of speech suppression is, in its own way, even more insidious because there is no fail-safe defense against it like the First Amendment.

Media Institute President Patrick Maines has written numerous columns in this space decrying all manner of attempts to suppress free expression.  One of the most onerous threats is the political correctness (or “PC”) movement, whereby the “politically correct” try to stifle the speech of those with whom they disagree.  Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, which should be the ultimate marketplaces of ideas.

Examples abound of campus activist groups pushing to “disinvite” guest lecturers or even commencement speakers whose views they dislike – often with the tacit or overt support of university officials.  High-profile incidents at Fordham, Brown, and Brandeis universities have captured media attention, but they were hardly isolated occurrences.  In fact, an organization called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) exists solely to fight these and other types of PC attacks on campus.

Speech suppression beyond the reach of the First Amendment takes other forms as well.  Activist groups and their “speech police” routinely try to intimidate speakers, especially through social media.  And even some journalists and editors in the mainstream media are prone to political correctness, though here the approach might be more subtle – a story presenting a PC point of view uncritically, or a story about a contrarian viewpoint never written at all.

Free Speech Week, then, offers the chance to celebrate the First Amendment as the protector of our speech (or the vast majority of it) from government interference.  The week also invites us to celebrate free expression in the broader sense.  Yet as we applaud freedom of speech generally, we need to be aware of the threats that continue to render this a fragile freedom.  There is a vocal opposition to these threats out there, including The Media Institute, FIRE, and others – but the voices challenging these threats and supporting truly free speech need to be more widespread.  We can indeed celebrate during Free Speech Week – but we can’t afford to be complacent.

Free Speech Week (FSW) is taking place Oct. 19 to Oct. 25.  You can learn more about how to get involved here: www.freespeechweek.org.

The First Amendment and Free Speech Under Assault

If you’re not alarmed by the assault on the First Amendment and free speech generally, you’re not paying attention.

Consider the list of offenses committed by the government.  They range, in recent times, from the Department of Justice’s spying on the phone records of reporters at the Associated Press, to the National Security Administration’s domestic call tracking, and from the IRS’s targeting of conservative nonprofit organizations, to the suggestion by the ranking Democrat on the Federal Elections Commission that political speech on the Internet should be regulated.

Other examples include the Obama Administration’s resistance to Freedom of Information Act requests, as documented in a study by the AP, and the issuance, by the CIA, of a subpoena to James Risen of the New York Times, demanding the identity of one of his confidential sources.

The party-line passage, by the Federal Communications Commission, of its so-called “Net Neutrality” regulations is another example.  In addition to inaugurating the regulation of the formerly unregulated Internet, the Title II approach adopted is certain, as FCC Commissioner Pai has warned, to open the door to attempts to use this regulation for purposes that, both intended and unintended, undermine free speech.

The most recent example of governmental speech suppression is the subpoena served on the online version of Reason magazine by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.  The subpoena, which for a time came with a gag order, demanded to know the identity of a handful of commenters that, angry about the life sentence handed down to the founder of the drug trading site, Silk Road, wrote denunciations of the judge who presided over the trial.

An example of one of the comments that occasioned the U.S. Attorney’s subpoena for the identification of that commenter: “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

So there it is.  Your taxpayer dollars at work!  And not just by a few bureaucrats, but by a veritable army of them: DOJ, NSA, CIA, IRS, FEC, FCC.  As Everett Dirksen might have put it, an agency here and an agency there, and pretty soon you’re talking about some real government.

Making matters worse and infinitely more depressing is the assault on free speech being committed by people wielding the bludgeon of political correctness, a concept that from the beginning symbolized the very opposite of free speech.

The venues of choice for the PC speech police are mainly the media (social media especially) and college campuses, and 2014 was a banner year for such stuff.

Take, for instance, the petition generated by two “climate change” groups in February of last year.  Having collected 110,000 names, the groups demanded that the Washington Post stop publishing “editorial content denying climate change.”  The Post refused, but the Los Angeles Times happily adopted a policy that was similar to what the groups were demanding.

And then, of course, there are the campuses.  Last year’s examples of campus “disinvitation” campaigns against speakers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleeza Rice, and Christine Lagarde have been widely chronicled, but the beat goes on.

In its 2015 Spotlight on Speech Codes, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that 54 percent of some 400 public colleges and universities it sampled maintain speech codes that violate the First Amendment.

FIRE’s response to this state of affairs has been to create a free speech litigation program that threatens offending colleges and universities with legal action, and the organization has had some notable successes.  But it’s doubtful that legal action alone will put the brakes on a concept that’s never depended on the law for its foundational principles or propagation.

Incubated on campus by activists and ideologues, and disseminated through the media, half-baked theories like “white privilege” and “microaggressions” and practices like “trigger warnings” and “speech codes” need to be challenged in those same venues by arguments based on logic, history, and science.

Absent this, and without congressional action to rein in the out-of-control federal agencies, free speech in the United States is at risk of becoming a dead letter; extant in the Constitution but without force or meaning.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. 

‘Forbearing’ the Constitution: Net Neutrality and the FCC

So the latest word is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a branch of government that, amusingly, is still referred to as an “independent” agency, is about to enact so-called net neutrality regulations under Title II of the Communications Act.

This, because according to its fans at the Commission, such regulations are needed in order to ensure a “fair and open” Internet.  Because, however, even the most passionate among them understand the many problems this would otherwise cause, the majority Democratic commissioners are said to be poised to enact regulations that forbear the full imposition of Title ll rules.

Meantime, Congress is considering enacting a law that would itself aim to protect net neutrality, but would do so in such a way as to deprive the FCC of its ability to regulate Internet service providers as a utility under Title II.

If (you’ll forgive the expression) one googles the word “forbearance,” the first definition that comes up reads: “The action of refraining from exercising a legal right…. ” — and there’s the rub!

With every passing day it becomes clearer that the Internet is the future of the press, and the plain language of the First Amendment bars the government from abridging freedom of speech or of the press.  >>Read More

Global Warming and the Chilling of Free Speech

One of the most important, if underreported, defamation cases in recent memory is being mounted by Prof. Michael Mann.  The creator of the controversial “Hockey Stick” graph, Mann is a leading figure among “global warming” scientists, and the targets of his lawsuit are prominent conservatives – the writer Mark Steyn, National Review magazine, the public policy outfit Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and a person who wrote for a CEI publication.

The gravamen of Mann’s suit is that the defendants defamed him by their published comments.  As an example, CEI stated in its initial blog post that Mann “has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science,” while National Review said that “Mann was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”  Mann further argues that the defendants’ global warming skepticism derives from their financial and political interests.

Successful defamation suits, particularly for a “public person” in a place like Washington, D.C., are very hard to win.  In part, this is because the District of Columbia (along with 28 states) has enacted an anti-SLAPP law that is intended to discourage “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” where the goal of the plaintiff isn’t to win but to intimidate and burden  defendants with the cost of their legal defense.

The other reason such suits are hard to win is because of the substantial and vital editorial latitude given the media, courtesy of the First Amendment.  This explains why the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), joined by 18 other media organizations, including such as Politico, the Washington Post, Dow Jones & Co., and the National Press Club, early on filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants.

For what should have been a relatively simple case, quickly yielding a dismissal of Mann’s suit, Mann vs. Steyn, et al., has been dragging on since fall of 2012.  In part, this is because of appeals of earlier procedural rulings, and also because Mann had to file an amended complaint.  Bottom line: It’s not clear even now if the case will get to the trial stage.  In fact it’s not even clear which court will act next in this case – could be the trial court or the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Adding to the confusion is Mark Steyn’s unhappiness with National Review’s legal strategy, such that he has now dropped out of participation with NR’s lawyers, and is currently representing himself.

So this is a snapshot in time of the murky legal case: Considerably less murky, however, is the larger picture – the one that is painted outside the courtroom, and that has implications not just for the plaintiff and defendants in this case, but for everyone who values freedom of speech.

There is perhaps no issue today that is more hotly debated than global warming, and contrary to Mann’s opinion, this debate rages on not because of the ideological or financial interests of some of the skeptics.  The debate rages on because of so many unanswered questions.

There’s been no global warming for at least 15 years.  Why is that?  Some suggest the heat is hiding at the bottom of oceans.  But whether it’s “hiding” there, or in Al Gore’s house, doesn’t that fact, by itself, prove that the computer models said to predict specific warming timelines are unreliable?

Then there are the vital related questions – beyond the expertise of climate scientists – like the economic impacts of global warming, and its prospective amelioration.  What do climate scientists know about engineering, economics, agronomy, or scores of other disciplines of the sort needed to recommend specific energy policies?

Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that Mann and the warming prophets are right: that anthropogenic warming is occurring; that its net results demand action; that we know what that action should be, and that whatever we did would provide societal results that, on balance, were preferable to doing nothing.

In that case, wouldn’t it be a good idea for climate scientists to attempt at all costs to persuade the public and policymakers to their point of view?  Wouldn’t it seem that defamation suits against people who disagree with you is counterproductive?

Whatever the facts of “climate change,” there’s evidence that few people take global warming seriously. Witness, for instance, the recent WSJ/NBC News poll, which found that, of 13 issues people were asked to rank by priority, “addressing climate change” was dead last.

Writing a comment in reply to a predictable global warming rant in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, one reader volunteered this:

It isn’t the big corporations or dissident scientists that are the problem, it’s the pesky public.  They simply don’t believe the climate change bandwagon.

Why?  Well, one of the biggest reasons is the zealotry of climate change supporters. Arguments that should be factual, with room for disagreement, have become intolerant slanging sessions, with insult and invective traded in place of reason. Even the phrase “deniers” is redolent of a religious movement more than scientific debate….

If climate change believers want to win more support, then it’s time to step back from the barricades and engage with the average man on the street.  Win the argument through persuasion, not rant. We’ve all had enough of that.

                                               

Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, and a former assistant publisher of National Review. The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Aereo and the Future of Content and Copyright

A case being petitioned for review by the Supreme Court will, if accepted, tell us a lot about the future of broadcasting. More importantly, it will tell us a lot about the future of all the content media, and of the nation’s copyright laws generally.

The case in question concerns the business practices of an outfit called Aereo, which streams for a fee over-the-air TV programming to the company’s subscribers.  Because this programming is delivered through the Internet, it is accessible when and where the subscriber wants it.  Sounds good, right?

Bu there’s a hitch.  Unlike cable and satellite systems, which pay the broadcasters for the right to retransmit their copyrighted programming, Aereo pays nothing. And how are they able to do this?  Well, that’s the heart of the Supreme Court petition filed last month by the four big broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

When cable and satellite operators distribute broadcast programming to their subscribers this is deemed a “public performance,” which is why those operators have to pay the broadcast copyright holders for the privilege.  When, however, an individual records a copyrighted program on his DVD this is deemed a “private performance,” and requires no compensation to the copyright holder.

Aereo’s business plan plainly exploits this public/private dichotomy by the simple device of installing tens of thousands of dime-sized antennas, each of which stream the over-the-air programming to Aereo’s subscribers individually, thereby qualifying, according to Aereo, as a private performance.

Lest you think for a minute that this is a triumph of engineering, rest assured it is not.  As noted by Rod Smolla, the lawyer who filed a brief for The Media Institute in support of the petition for review: “If a picture tells a thousand words, a thousand antennas tell the picture.”

Nor is Smolla the only person who sees through this scheme.  Denny Chin, an appeals court judge who was part of a panel that earlier ruled against an injunction against Aereo, wrote this in his stinging dissent:

The [Aereo] system employs thousands of individual dime-sized antennas rather than one central antenna; indeed, the system is a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, over-engineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law. 

Because the Supreme Court agrees to review less than one percent of the cases brought before it, it’s no sure thing that Aereo will be reviewed, even though Aereo has declined to oppose the petition for review.  Much may depend on the decision in another appeals court, which is considering a case concerning a company with an Aereo-like setup.  If that court rules against the company, there will be a conflict between two appeals courts (the Second and Ninth circuits), something that would increase the chances that the Supreme Court would agree to review the case.

The importance of this case is not just whether broadcasters can derive revenue for their programs from third-party Internet distributors.  The importance is in what it will tell us about the future of all the content industries and of copyright itself.

To put it another way, you don’t have to be a fan of broadcasting (or Hollywood, or the recording industry, etc.) to have a high regard for copyright.  Like the First Amendment, copyright is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and in practice it is copyright that provides the incentive that leads to the creation of the content that the First Amendment protects!

Seen this way (and even acknowledging that there is always some tension between the First Amendment and copyright, usually over arguments about the reach of “fair use”), both of these concepts are not just important in their own right, they’re the opposite sides of the same coin.

Today, however, those industries that rely on copyright protection – the so-called content media like newspapers, magazines, motion pictures, recording companies, book publishers, and broadcasting – are being decimated by piracy and/or the copyright-skirting practices of Internet companies like Google.

Whether the Supreme Court reviews the case or not, Aereo won’t be the last word on the subject of copyright protection.  But if Aereo, or any company, can escape paying copyright fees simply by creating a service that turns on a technological sham like Aereo’s, it’s not just content producers that will suffer; it’s the content-consuming public and copyright law generally.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Dec.16, 2013.

 

Five Myths About the Federal Shield Law

By guest blogger KURT WIMMER, ESQ., partner at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., and chairman of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.

Free speech is the oxygen of the blogosphere.  Blogs, tweets and Facebook posts couldn’t have the profound influence they have rightfully earned in our new and diverse marketplace of ideas without a robust freedom to debate, to challenge, and even to be outrageous.  So it’s hardly surprising that when a congressional debate about protecting confidential sources mentions blogs, it touches a nerve.

That debate concerned the Free Flow of Information Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month on a bipartisan, 13-5 vote.  If passed by Congress, the Act would be the first statute to protect journalists from being forced to identify their confidential sources in federal court.  It would build on the protections of the First Amendment (because no act of Congress, of course, can minimize those rights) and fix a serious bug in our constitutional system – multiple federal courts now have said that the only way for reporters to protect a confidential source is to go to prison indefinitely.  Many of our federal courts have held that the First Amendment simply does not allow a reporter to protect a confidential source.  That’s hardly a solution that reflects our country’s global leadership in free expression.  Although 48 states and the District of Columbia already provide such protection in state courts, Congress has never passed a federal shield law.  So the Judiciary Committee’s vote should give journalists reason for optimism, as Emily Bazelon of Slate has so persuasively described.

So why did debate on the Act touch such a nerve?  Because when the Act creates a new privilege, it has to define who can claim that privilege, and defining “journalist” in our diverse online environment is a sensitive task.  The way the Act accomplishes this delicate balance earned the endorsement of the Online News Association and other non-traditional journalists.  But this issue also prompted some commentators to spread myths about the Act.  For example, Free Press released a paper this month, “Acts of Journalism: Defining Press Freedom in the Digital Age,” which purports to analyze the bill.  Remarkably, however, the paper didn’t discuss the bill itself; indeed it is unclear whether its author has even read the bill.  Other bloggers, drawing from blogs rather than the Act itself, claimed the Act “is an attempt to carve out certain types of journalism that Congress is uncomfortable with,” and that it is “basically a licensing law.”

It’s time for some level-setting here, based on the novel concept of looking at what the Act actually says rather than simply echoing the conspiracy theories about how Congress is slighting the blogosphere, or about how the Act is weak-kneed and won’t protect national security reporters.  These claims are simply myths that don’t stand up to analysis.  In fact, the Act will protect journalists – whether they report on a blog or the New York Times, and is our very best chance to keep the people who are informing us from being treated as criminals for committing journalism.

Myth: The Free Flow of Information Act does not cover bloggers.

Fact: False.  Bloggers who practice journalism will be explicitly covered by the privilege.

Free Press writes that today’s “pamphleteers use iPhones and blogs instead of carbon paper, but their acts of journalism still deserve protection.”  That is, of course, correct, and the Act’s authors agree.  That’s why the bill explicitly includes people who disseminate news via websites, mobile apps, “or other news or information service (whether distributed digitally or otherwise).”  Although many state shield laws cover only traditional media, such as newspapers and broadcasters, the Senate bill is platform-agnostic and covers all journalists, regardless of how they distribute their news.

Some also believe the Act should cover all Americans, under the theory that anyone could be a “citizen journalist” and the First Amendment requires that everyone be given the same rights as journalists.  This is, of course, a classic “poison pill” advocated by those who really want to kill the bill (including some lawmakers who proposed such an amendment but also voted against the Act).  A privilege for everyone would mean a privilege for no one, because Congress would never pass an act that allows every single citizen in the United States to quash a subpoena.  The Act properly focuses on a medium-agnostic way to make sure it covers all those who are practicing journalism, but a suggestion that it cover all Americans is simply a smokescreen for those who would rather see the bill die.

Myth: Rather than attempting to define “journalist,” the bill should focus on defining the practice of journalism.

Fact: That’s exactly what the bill does.

Tricia Todd wrote in a Huffington Post blog that Congress “needs to craft a law that protects acts of journalism rather than targeting the messengers and intimidating sources.”  Similarly, Free Press discusses the danger of drawing “a line between who qualifies as a journalist for the purposes of the reporter’s privilege or shield-law protections.”  As an example, the paper cites the Second Circuit’s decision in von Bulow v. von Bulow, which held that the reporter’s privilege should focus on the journalist’s activities, rather than occupational title.

There’s just one problem with the Free Press criticism: The Free Flow of Information Act does, in fact, focus on people who practice journalism, regardless of their job title.  The bill covers people who gather information “with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information concerning local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest[.]”  That test comes directly from the Second Circuit’s opinion in von Bulow – the very test that Free Press advocates.

Myth: The bill would require the government to license journalists.

Fact: False.  The argument that “defining a journalist will lead to licensing” is as old as shield laws themselves.  But it’s just false – “journalists” have been defined in other laws dating back to 1900, and federal laws dating back to FOIA.  No “licenses” ever have been created under American law, and none could ever be required for journalism because denying a “license” would be a blatant First Amendment violation.

Rush Limbaugh and other critics have argued that the Free Flow of Information Act would create a de facto licensing system for journalists.  This could never happen because the First Amendment right to publish applies to everyone.  The “government” would not license journalists under the Free Flow of Information Act.  Independent, life-tenured judges would determine whether a journalist is able to claim an additional privilege under the statute to protect a source, but this is not a system of licensing.  It’s a system of determining who can resist an otherwise valid order to testify in federal court, just like courts always have done under the attorney-client privilege, the doctor-patient privilege, and the spousal privilege.

Nonetheless, some believe that once Congress passes a shield law, it will eventually permit only state-approved “journalists” to practice journalism and claim First Amendment protections.  It”s sort of like saying, “if they learn to make metal, they’ll build a bazooka.”  In fact, all of the state shield laws require judges to determine whether an individual is covered, and the federal Freedom of Information Act has defined “news media” for years for purposes of obtaining a fee waiver when requesting federal government records.  None of these laws has led to “licensing” of journalists.  (Any law that would “license” journalists would undoubtedly be unconstitutional and easily struck down.)

Myth: The bill would deprive non-covered journalists of their First Amendment rights.

Fact: False.  The Constitution stands above any law passed by Congress, and this law will not limit the First Amendment.

James Tracy, of Activist Post, wrote that under the Senate bill, “only salaried journalists will be given the free press protections guaranteed to all US citizens by the Constitution.”  Similarly, in a bizarre non-sequitur, the Free Press paper describes non-traditional journalistic activities, as if these activities would somehow be limited by the bill.  In the rare instance where an individual does not receive protection under the statute, that individual retains all of her First Amendment rights.  In fact, Congress does not have the power to pass a bill that would deprive people of their constitutional right to publish.  (And the Senate bill does not require a “salary” to claim its privilege.)

Myth: The bill would not protect national security reporters, because its “national security exception” denies the privilege to any reporting about national security or classified documents.

Fact: False.  The bill’s national security provisions are the most speech-protective to emerge from Congress’s nine years of working on this legislation.

The bill, in fact, would prevent courts or agencies from forcing journalists to disclose sources in national security leak investigations in the vast majority of cases.  The “national security” exception in leak cases is very narrow – it applies only if an independent federal judge finds that the disclosure would materially assist the federal government in preventing or mitigating an act of terrorism or other acts that are reasonably likely to cause significant and articulable harm to national security.  The bill would not require disclosure merely to identify the source for later prosecution.  And the bill explicitly states that the court cannot order disclosure of the source’s identity merely because that source is capable of disclosing more classified information in the future.  This “exception” for national security interests is narrowly tailored, and it will provide significant and important protections for investigative reporting on national security issues.

In all, I recognize that Internet memes are pretty hard to slow down once they begin.  But the meme that Congress is somehow seeking to undermine bloggers and to stop non-traditional journalists from being protected by the First Amendment is simply belied by the facts.  The best remedy might be to do something truly radical – try reading the bill.  And then look at the reporters, such as author and New York Times reporter Jim Risen, who right now are threatened with imprisonment for doing their jobs.  The next step is simple: Support the bill.

Note: Mr. Wimmer represents a 70-member coalition of associations and companies advocating for the Act.  This article appeared in the Huffington Post on Oct. 29, 2013.

Follow Kurt Wimmer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kurtwimmer

The Revolting Truth

Among the unhappier facts of life in America these days is that more than a few people support the suppression of speech.

The latest evidence of this is the formation earlier this month of a group called Truth Revolt.  Created by David Horowitz, a conservative activist (and erstwhile leftist), TR says its mission is to:

Unmask leftists in the media for who they are, destroy their credibility with the American public, and devastate their funding bases….

Truth Revolt works to make advertisers and funders aware of the leftist propaganda they sponsor – and bringing social consequences to bear to create pressure on such advertisers and funders.

True to their word, the group published a story last week asking advertisers to drop their support of Al Sharpton’s MSNBC program, Politics Nation. If this sounds familiar, that could be because it bears a striking resemblance to the actions of another group, Media Matters. Founded by liberal activist (and one-time conservative) David Brock, MM has targeted advertisers on shows like Rush Limbaugh and cable’s FOX News

Given their past ideological affinities, and their colorful take on things today, it would be amusing to see Horowitz and Brock duke it out in a debate.  But apart from the muckraking both of them relish, there’s a serious problem with campaigns that seek to silence the speech of those with whom they disagree.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, that problem is not that such campaigns violate the First Amendment.  In fact, the First Amendment doesn’t come into play at all here, except to the extent that these organizations’ right to engage in such behavior is protected against any governmental efforts as might seek to curtail them.

Indeed, when groups like Truth Revolt or Media Matters conjure up campaigns against their ideological enemies, and even when they attempt to silence individuals or media companies by attacking their commercial supporters, they are engaging in fully protected constitutional speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, or that it’s consistent with any decent regard for freedom of speech.

The First Amendment exists primarily to protect against governmental interference or control over speech, political speech especially, but the point of it is the protection of speech.  To put it another way, we don’t venerate the First Amendment because it protects the First Amendment; we venerate it because it recognizes the value in, and the basic human right of, the expression of one’s opinions.  Indeed, many countries practice a substantial degree of free speech without even having a First Amendment or its equivalent.

Campaigns mounted against the advertisers of disfavored programs or individuals cross the line between criticism and suppression.  The same could be said of certain attempts by third parties to use government agencies like the FCC to censor TV content they dislike.  Petitioning the FCC is legal, but calling for government censorship threatens the freedom of speech of the writers and copyright holders of those shows.

Because it’s been launched just this month, we don’t yet know what kind of reception or impact Truth Revolt will have.  But if the example of Media Matters is any guide, we can be fairly sure that it will scare away some advertisers, and that the media will cover its actions uncritically … or maybe not.

Founded in 2004, and financially supported by people like George Soros and the wealthy group of liberals that comprise the Democracy Alliance, Media Matters has the ear of many mainstream journalists and news organizations.  And given the liberal bent of much of the mainstream media, it may well be that Truth Revolt will have to depend more on the so-called conservative media for coverage of its campaigns, but probably not always, and not without effect.

Though it’s been reported that Democracy Alliance has moved in recent years more in the direction of a partisan organization favoring Democrats, rather than a progressive infrastructure-building group, the irony of its support of outfits like Media Matters can be seen in its description of itself as a group that “strives to foster an open, vibrant democracy.”

How that is consistent with funding an outfit that traffics in the 21st century’s version of book burning is something perhaps only a “progressive” can explain. And it’s something to ponder as the country celebrates Free Speech Week this month.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article appeared in the online edition of USA Today on Oct. 17, 2013.

 

Seeking Shared Values Amid the Scandals

Reflecting our fractured political landscape, much of the discussion of the recent scandals erupting from the Executive Branch of government has been thoroughly politicized.

It’s understandable, but it’s also myopic and deeply troubling for those who believe that our civic life depends crucially on free and unfettered speech, and on the shared understanding by all parties that the First Amendment belongs to everyone, even those with whom we disagree.

Some of the things done by the State Department, the Justice Department, and the IRS – no matter who did, or did not, order them – are patently offensive, and can’t be allowed to stand.

When the State Department attributed the atrocity in Benghazi to a YouTube video, they weren’t just making a mistake, they were trafficking in the all-too-familiar refrain that “the media did it.”

When the Justice Department subpoenaed the phone records of AP reporters in search of a leaker – and in a related matter, when a FOX reporter was accused by the FBI of being a co-conspirator in the leaking of a confidential report – they weren’t just exceeding their constitutional authority, they were criminalizing investigative reporting itself.

And when the IRS decided to slow-walk the applications for tax exempt status of conservative groups, because they were conservative groups, and leaked to progressive media outlets information about conservative groups (as with the “Tea Party” applications delivered to ProPublica), they weren’t just injecting politics into what should be a value-free process, they were poisoning the well of what we as a nation have long considered to be the highest and most protected form of speech: political speech.

None of this can be tolerated.  But more important still is that people and organizations of all persuasions condemn it.  That way lies the preservation of our most precious freedom, and the civic virtue of shared values.  If, in the alternative, people in Congress and the press treat these matters as political footballs, we’ll all be the losers.

Going forward it will be easy to tell which path the players have taken.

                                            

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils. A version of this article titled "Seeking shared values amid the IRS, AP scandals" was published online in the May 24, 2013 issue of USA Today, and can be viewed here.