First Amendment Values and a Voice for Everyone

In the 40 years since The Media Institute began, it’s difficult to recall a national environment quite like the one we’re in today.

Basic principles of free speech are being challenged in multiple ways and by multiple forces: foreign governments distorting the “truth” through social media, and varying outlets promoting wildly disparate views of the “news.”  Divisiveness and contention are at an all-time high in our politics and our national discourse. 

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First Amendment Still Shines During Toughest of Times

Two hundred and thirty-one years ago this week, Congress passed a collection of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, 10 of which would become the Bill of Rights.  Foremost in the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment, which allows Americans to worship how they please, speak their minds openly, and have their voices heard by their government.

Our Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, also included in the First Amendment the right to a free press.  They understood that our democracy could not survive without the freedom to report the news without fear or favor.  The times may have changed; that principle has not.

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Cancel Culture Is Techno Tyranny

Hyper partisan politics and our divided nation make it easier than ever to vilify anyone, any time, in any way.  In the words of Michael Corleone, “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”

Used figuratively here, of course, but that is what cancel culture has wrought in today’s society.

While cancellation may seek to stifle speech, it causes social and economic destruction as well.  It projects permanence and public shame for its targets whether deserved or not.  And it promotes a kind of techno tyranny against which we all should be vigilant.

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Ending the Media Versus Police Tumult

Whatever happens with police reform legislation in Congress, there is no reason to expect that protection of reporters and media will figure into the proposed “best practices” of how journalists should be treated during tense and often violent situations such as we’ve seen in the past month.  Generalized protections already exist in the First Amendment, but as the brutal incidents of the past month show, law enforcement officers can recklessly bypass those enshrined barriers.

A slew of reports – some of them admittedly self-pitying – emerged in recent weeks with frightening details about how print and electronic journalists have been attacked by law enforcement officers.  It appears that sometimes reporters were singled out as they sought to cover the protests and demonstrations that erupted around the world after George Floyd’s death-by-knee in Minneapolis.

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An Independent Press: Essential to Our Democracy

We are living in challenging times for those who depend on the work of a free press.  Every day, journalists across the globe encounter censorship, harassment, and violence.  In every part of the world, authoritarian rulers are increasing their grip on the press, trying to prevent reporters from holding the powerful to account.

The Washington Post is sadly familiar with these attacks.  Our reporter Jason Rezaian was arrested and held inside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for 544 days, even though he had committed no crime.  We are grateful that he is now free and back at The Washington Post, where his writing often focuses on the importance of press freedom.   

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Who Will Keep the Sun Shining?

The news media’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week, which takes place March 10-16, has always called to mind the importance of access to government information, transparency of public records, and the idea that the free flow of information is an essential element of “good government.”

Created by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in 2005, the event was timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of Founding Father James Madison, a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights.  It has always been envisioned as a celebration of the Freedom of Information Act signed into law on July 4, 1966, which outlined mandatory disclosure provisions for federal documents and records.

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Free Speech Week: Celebrating, Reflecting

Free Speech Week has always been a time to celebrate freedom of expression. This year, however, perhaps there should be an element of somber reflection amid the festivities. It’s worth remembering, after all, that the exercise of free speech can have life-or-death consequences in certain parts of the world. How thankful we should be that freedom of speech and freedom of the press can be exercised in this country without fear of such extreme retaliation.

The sad case of Jamal Khashoggi brings this into sharp relief. The disappearance and murder of the Washington Post contributing columnist, which the Saudis now admit occurred at the hands of their own operatives, happened just three weeks before Free Speech Week, October 22 – 28. He joins a long list of journalists from around the world who have disappeared or been killed while working in pursuit of the truth, who spoke out too stridently or too frequently against corrupt government leaders and their abuses of power.

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Speaking Up for a Free Press

Something quite remarkable – unprecedented, actually – is scheduled to take place on Aug. 16. More than 100 newspapers across the country will mount a coordinated editorial response to President Trump’s increasingly frequent attacks on the media. Responding to a rallying cry from the Boston Globe, papers ranging from large metropolitan dailies to small weeklies will publish editorials defending freedom of the press and their critical role in this democracy. They will be joined by members of the broadcast media as well, with the strong support of the Radio-Television Digital News Association.

These editorial writers will be reacting to the constant stream of messages from the president, in tweets and speeches, that the mainstream media are “the enemy of the people,” “fake, fake disgusting news,” “fake news media,” and so forth.

One school of thought has held that replying to such charges is pointless because the president’s pronouncements are either hollow rhetoric or impulsive ramblings or political fodder for his base – or some combination of the three. Furthermore, since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, and the courts are willing to uphold that freedom, the president’s words can have no real effect on the media. Thus, this line of thinking concludes, the act of replying to hollow assertions becomes a hollow act itself.

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Repealing Media Ownership Regulations: It’s About Time

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed the most reasonable of actions: repealing or revising 40-year-old media ownership rules that long ago outlived any marginal usefulness they might’ve once had.

This should be a no-brainer. But, Washington being what it is, entrenched interests and politicians bent on maintaining the status quo for their own purposes have pilloried Pai for trying to do something that should’ve been done decades ago.

First, the facts. On Oct. 26, Chairman Pai released an Order on Reconsideration and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. This proceeding seeks to accomplish the following:

  • Eliminate the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule;
  • Eliminate the Radio/Television Cross-Ownership Rule; and
  • Revise the Local Television Rule to eliminate the Eight-Voices Test and to incorporate a case-by-case review provision in the Top Four Prohibition.

The proceeding would also seek to eliminate the attribution rule for television Joint Sales Agreements; retain the disclosure requirement for commercial television Shared Services Agreements; keep the Local Radio Ownership Rule; and create an incubator program to encourage new and diverse voices in the broadcast industry.

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The Real Crisis of Campus Free Expression

College campuses should be bastions of free speech.  Today, they often seem to be the very places in American society where there is the least tolerance for controversial ideas.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion of why this has occurred is based on the ad hoc experiences of a few campuses, including Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, and Middlebury that briefly gained national attention when lecturers were harassed or prevented from speaking by unruly and, occasionally, riotous crowds.

Systematic public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that the real problem of free expression on college campuses is much deeper than episodic moments of censorship: With little comment, an alternate understanding of the First Amendment has emerged among young people that can be called “the right to non-offensive speech.”  This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity.

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