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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