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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Obama’s Legacy: The Trashing of Free Speech

No administration in memory has more thoroughly undermined freedom of speech and of the press than that of President Obama.  From the White House itself, as well as the independent and executive branch agencies, have come a steady stream of policies, initiatives, and pronunciamentos that have threatened or compromised both of these constitutional rights.

Indeed, the Administration’s example has inspired like-minded actions outside of the White House.  For example, those Democratic members of Congress who actively encouraged IRS action against conservative nonprofit organizations before Lois Lerner turned to the task.

And the 16 state attorneys general, Democrats all, who have recently embarked on a campaign designed to silence people who are skeptical of the evidence of anthropogenic global warming and/or its effects and remediation.

But it’s the example of the Administration itself that is most notable.  Who could forget the performance of then-UN ambassador Susan Rice who, five days after the Benghazi attack that took the life of the American ambassador, went on national TV and blamed the attacks on an anti-Islam video shown on YouTube?

This followed by two days Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s similar claim, and all of it despite the fact that senior Administration officials knew at the time that Benghazi was a premeditated attack that had nothing to do with the video.  >>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 Hill on July 13, 2016.

Free Speech: It’s Catching On

This week, Oct. 18 to 24, is National Freedom of Speech Week (NFSW).  The Media Institute created NFSW in 2005 in cooperation with the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation as a chance for groups and individuals to celebrate the free speech and press that we enjoy thanks to the First Amendment, which protects most speech from government censorship.

The event has grown every year as more organizations have joined the celebration.  This year, however, we have seen a real spike in participation.  Much of this has come from colleges and universities, where professors of communications and law, in particular, see NFSW as an opportunity to host debates and discussions on freedom of speech.

We’re also seeing a big jump in persons writing about National Freedom of Speech Week, and free speech generally.  Much of this is happening in blogs and tweets, as opposed to traditional news stories, by all sorts of people with all sorts of interests who have at least two things in common: They take full advantage of their ability to speak freely, and they generally do so through digital means of communication.

And this is precisely what National Freedom of Speech Week is meant to celebrate.  We are all speakers, and we all have the ability to speak our minds without fear of government censorship.  Many of our large Partnering Organizations are conducting innovative programs, contests, and activities to raise awareness of free speech.  We salute them – and we will do our best to compile a list of their activities to document NFSW 2010.  

In the meantime, we tip our First Amendment hat to the bloggers and tweeters who are using their digital devices to create a new and exciting dialogue about freedom of speech and the First Amendment.  Their free speech is truly the language of America.

The National Freedom of Speech Week website is at freespeechweek.org.