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:

The Boston Debate League and the Boston Marathon

One of the most intractable and tragic aspects of American life is the plight of so many urban youth. The societal cost of this state of affairs is great; the human costs incalculable.  In the midst of the despair, however, sometimes come programs that make a difference.

An example that became the basis of the 2005 documentary, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” is the New York City public schools program that teaches ballroom dancing to fifth graders from different parts of the city.

Another example is the Boston Debate League, an organization that works with the Boston public schools to support academic teams in local high schools.  The BDL’s mission statement is to “measurably improve students’ academic achievement and their expectations of themselves … through academic debate.”

As the group explains it, “All students can realize the benefits from competitive policy debates.  In fact, the students who benefit the most are those who are currently not engaged in school and are in danger of dropping out….  In particular, we believe that policy debate can help reduce the achievement gap for urban students of color.”

And the facts seem to bear that out.  A University of Missouri study found that after one year in urban debate leagues, debaters attended school more frequently, improved their GPAs by 10 percent, and achieved a 25 percent increase in literacy scores.

Another Boston success story is its annual marathon, which this year will be run on April 16, and therein lies a connection to the BDL.  By a felicitous coincidence, The Media Institute’s vice president, Rick Kaplar, will be running in this year’s Boston Marathon, and he’ll be running for the Boston Debate League.

As Rick put it in a recent e-mail, “I like the idea of running for the Boston Debate League because debating is all about speech and freedom of expression – and it brings this form of speech to at-risk kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.”

As set by the marathon organizers, the Boston Athletic Association, all runners for charity teams are required to raise a fixed amount of money for their teams in order to participate.  The Media Institute has made a contribution to the BDL in this regard, and if any of those who are regular readers of this blog would like to make a contribution as well, I know it would be greatly appreciated by Rick, and of material help to the Boston Debate League.

Here’s a link that will take you where you need to go for information about how to do that: “Team Debate.” And thanks for your interest and support.

Evil Is as Evil Does

The search giant Google is attracting criticism from those who see in that company’s business practices a threat to professional journalism, old and new.  The latest such comes in the form of a policy paper written by media attorney Kurt Wimmer, and published online by The Media Institute.

Honored this year by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Wimmer has advised journalists and legislators in more than two dozen countries concerning new media laws, protection of journalists, and freedom of information.

The thrust of his paper is that, at a time when there is great concern for the future of the media, much of this concern is misplaced.  There’s no crisis in journalism per se, he argues, but rather a crisis in the monetization of journalistic content, a condition greatly exacerbated by the fact that one company dominates both search and online advertising.

Is anyone monetizing digital content?  Yes.  News and information continues to be monetized – at a rapidly increasing rate – by search engines, content aggregators, and others whose new, targeted advertising models have overtaken the spending that had supported journalism in the past.

Again, the dramatic new feature here is the split between content creation and content monetization – those who create the content are not those who are monetizing it.  Google, for example, had a record $23 billion in revenue during 2009, without producing a word of original content.  Google’s job is simply to monetize the content that others have created, and it has performed that job exceptionally well.  Today, more than 70 percent of the Web searches conducted in the United States (and up to 90 percent of those in Europe) flow through Google’s servers.  By its recent acquisition of AdMob, Google will control the vast majority of the mobile application advertising market as well.

Complaints about Google’s disruptive effect on professional journalism are not new, of course, and this is not the only active concern about Google’s business practices.  Other people have problems with the company’s abuse of copyrighted material (as in Viacom’s lawsuit against Google’s YouTube subsidiary), or with Google’s invasion of privacy, such as seen in the recent “Spy-Fi” affair.

What is new is the degree of scrutiny of Google’s practices by government antitrust officials.  As reported last month in a lengthy story in The New York Times, “the search giant’s decisions on such matters may soon be judged by higher authorities.”  As the Times reporter, Brad Stone, put it: “Almost a decade after Google promised that the creed ‘Don’t be evil’ would guide its activities, the federal government is examining Google’s acquisitions and actions as never before, looking for indications that the company’s market power may be anticompetitive in the worlds of Web search and online advertising.”

It’s become hard to know, in recent years, what the government may deem to be in restraint of trade, but if it happens, sometime in the near future, that it initiates an antitrust review of Google and you find yourself wondering why, read Wimmer’s piece and wonder no more.

Cross posted here on Huffington Post.

And Now for Something Entirely Different…

In Washington, the lingua franca of policy discussions is "lobbyspeak," a form of communication that seeks, among other things, to conceal any hint of personal belief or interest.

The allure of lobbyspeak is that it allows the speaker to say things in a way that inoculates him from the risk that someone might denigrate his arguments as being just his own opinions, as contrasted, say, with positions derived from case law, or precedent, or that runaway favorite, the “public interest.”

Considered in the larger scheme of things, this is not the worst thing in the world.  Among the initiated, after all, it is easily spotted, and in some cases even appreciated — like a risqué double entendre — for its naughty cleverness.  But it can be, and often is, remarkably tiresome.

Which is why I write today to commend a speech given in Washington this week by the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, the people who host the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  Lobbyspeak it was not.

As reported Tuesday in the headline of a Broadcasting & Cable story, "CEA president Gary Shapiro says media has ‘failed’ the country by poorly analyzing important stories," the speech excoriated the press for their insufficient attention to the substantive aspects of the recently enacted stimulus legislation, and our financial crisis generally.

In a town in which many, association executives particularly, are loathe to say anything that might upset anyone — the press and policymakers especially — Shapiro’s speech before The Media Institute was stunningly different, and frank, and courageous.