Editor’s Column: Don’t get ‘free speech’ and ‘free press’ confused

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While everyone is up in arms about decisions made by Twitter, Facebook and other tech giants to delete accounts or remove apps, let’s take a peek back in time. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Within just a few years legal cases surrounding the interpretation of the amendments and their application were in the highest courts of the land.

In the 226 years since, thousands of court cases have sought clarification, definition, and interpretation of that document; cases centered on separation of church and state, freedom of speech, libel laws, freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights and so much more.

That was the purpose of establishing a governmental system that would be fluid and flexible enough to grow as a nation as times changed.

And here we are again. The inception of “social media” has created new confusion about free speech, about legal implications, about slander and libel, and so much more.

Let’s start with this: In the First Amendment we are promised freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press. While similar, they are not quite the same.

A free press provides a link between the people and the government and vice versa. Hence the reason we endure hours of town, county, and local board meetings wherein decisions are made that affect citizens. The press abides by a code of ethics and standards that revolve around seeking and telling the truth, minimizing harm, verifying and protecting sources, etc., and are subject to legal and financial repercussions if they don’t. The press — the legitimate press — has rules to follow. Most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations fall under the “free press” category.

Falling under the protection of the freedom of speech, we have comedians, musicians, publishers of explicit material, cable TV pundits and commentators and talk radio hosts and bloggers and livestreamers and podcasters and… the list is endless, and there are no rules. Anyone can declare him or herself an expert, a citizen-journalist, a pundit, or a commentator under the right to free speech.

The internet has changed the scope of the information playing field. Now we have a plethora of “free-speech” media sites that purposely blur the line between free speech and free press. They make themselves look like “news” but they follow no rules, abide by no ethical constraints. It’s not that the free speech folks are doing anything that’s not legally protected, it’s that they have no accountability for what they say or the effects their words might have. They aren’t required to print corrections, or avoid libelous statements, or avoid inciting a riot.

When we learned about free speech in school, we learned that free speech carries consequences. You can stand on the street corner and wave a sign that says, “down with pick-a-party” and no one can stop you if you aren’t trespassing, disturbing the peace, or otherwise being a nuisance. But if you scream “fire” in a crowded theater and someone is trampled to death, or falls and cracks a tooth, you can be held liable for that death or injury in a court of law. In other words, you’re free to say what you want, but don’t try to cry “free speech” when your words have consequences.

The same is true on social media sites and the internet. These are privately owned companies. Customers agree to their terms of service (you know, that long scrolling box no one ever reads?) when they sign up. If they violate those terms, that business has every right to cut them off, the same way a bartender can cut off a drunk without serving him or her another drink.

By NIKI TURNER | niki@ht1885.com

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