Freedom and the Press

The First Amendment of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Though hotly debated over the years, the amendment stands as a testament to the free flow of information and is a key part of a free and democratic nation.

With the current election touting media bias and “alternative facts” as tainting the political scene, questions arise as to how far is too far for free speech. Additionally, legislation against hate crimes and libel push the other end of the spectrum calling for certain mandates against untethered speech and content.

According to Cassandra Myers, “For all the appeal that free speech provides for us as individuals, the methodology for solving the tough free speech problems has remained murky; the lines of reasoning for First Amendment cases do not always follow predictable paths.”

With these murky waters becoming foggier through the ages, the media and those who wish to stay informed about the goings on of the world must take a firm stance on what information should be regulated in order to keep corruption at bay. In a recent controversy regarding Ann Coulter and her canceled speech at Berkeley, columnist, Alicia Shepard raised issues about the protection of those taking advantage of their right to free speech in communities hostile to their ideas.

“Academic environments should be a place for all students to learn and debate a robust variety of viewpoints — particularly if they contradict one’s own beliefs,” Shepard said.

The hostility that the students had against Coulter’s opinions is understandable and their dissent was a part of free speech and the ability to hold one’s own views. However, the threats of hostility that they made against her were in direct opposition to this very principle.

Barring someone from speaking their mind, whichever side they might take, is a violation of the first amendment and should not be tolerated. There are ways one can present their own view without threatening another.

However, with the advent of social media and platforms where anyone can write content, fake news and deliberately false opinions have become an increasing concern that ties into the free flow of information.

“Through the mere click of a computer mouse, (individuals) can transmit these documents to hundreds (potentially thousands or millions) of people around the world,” Russell Weaver of the Texas Law Review said in the fifth annual criminal law symposium. The platforms available to the general public should be viewed as a gift and used responsibly because of the reach that every public post and stated opinion might have.

This power has “transformed the political process as well as democratic systems,” Weaver said. “Because individuals are no longer forced to persuade traditional gatekeepers to communicate their ideas, they can directly attempt to influence the political process.”

Easier access to political leaders through social media as well as facilitating mass movements to legislate change are just some of the ways individuals “influence the political process.”

Unfortunately, there are also negative tactics that are more easily utilized through the Internet. Fake news is an abuse of free speech, just as much as threats against the free statement of opinions are. The platforms available to the general public should be viewed as a great responsibility. When used with reckless abandon, the web creates division and even security threats.

But with guidance and an adherence to moral principles it can also be a place where those who have little other opportunities to communicate with each other might collaborate, listen to each other’s thoughts and seek solutions.

However, sites like Wikileaks and other infiltrators can often present a security risk to the country. Though they often claim that some of their work has even proved to be eye openers to the general public, the inherent potential for information to fall into the hands of enemies provides grounds for legislation against leaks and distribution of classified information.

But how much legislation is too much? When does the protection of information begin to inhibit the flow of information that might be private or even classified but that the public has a right to know?

Myers explains that the First Amendment is “adaptive to cultural changes which can broaden its usefulness to the public it serves.”

Because of the Internet and the ability to easily access information, the media can and has utilized this for the greater good. Investigative journalists and advocates use access to public records to shed light on dubious practices as well as bring justice to certain situations. This sort of good that access can bring about temper negative aspects of widespread access.

The Constitution was founded on principles of self-governance and moral behavior from citizens. Thus the First Amendment also works best when we use the allowance of free speech and free press for good purposes.

Myers believes that, “as a fundamental part of the human condition- so tied to our higher intelligence-it is not only the ability to communicate, but also the inherent need to feel heard, to feel as if our individual thoughts prescribe value, that gives substance to free speech rights.”

Knowing that their voices will be heard should encourage the media to be prudent with their articles using truth and morality to drive the message as opposed to pride or political animosity. Keeping themselves accountable as members of the media as well as individuals will be a step in the right direction in keeping free press and speech privileges that are instrumental in guiding and enhancing a free and democratic nation.

Word Count: 934