Category Archives: Free Speech

Assange And The First Amendment: It’s Complicated

Let’s quickly review the relevant rules.

As most Americans know, the First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of the press. That freedom is not absolute: you cannot falsely cry fire in a crowded theater, nor blithely libel someone you don’t like, nor spill trade secrets in contravention of an agreement not to do so. Members of the press who report damaging, untrue information about public figures with “willful disregard” for its accuracy can be held accountable.

In most cases, the persons harmed by such improper behaviors can sue only after the fact. Our legal system has a strong bias against prior restraint–against enjoining publication in the first place. (That bias goes back to the era when England required publishers to obtain government permission before printing anything.) But even that strong presumption against prior restraint can be overcome in extraordinary circumstances–someone proposing to identify American spies abroad, or to disclose upcoming troop movements in wartime could certainly be kept from doing so.

It is probably impossible to overstate the importance of journalism to democracy–as one masthead puts it, democracy dies in darkness. Autocrats routinely take control of the media. That’s why Trump’s constant attacks on the press are so worrisome–and so unAmerican. Those attacks are probably one reason that the arrest of Julian Assange has raised such an outcry.

How does this apply to what we know thus far about Wikileaks and Julian Assange?

Assange’s Wikileaks published illegally procured classified information. Under First Amendment law as I understand it, his publication of that information is protected.

Engaging in criminal activity to acquire the information, however, is not. And that is what the government–so far–is alleging.

Typically, a whistleblower or other source of illegally obtained material is the one breaking the law; a journalist is not a lawbreaker simply because he or she received it. Here, it is alleged that Assange materially assisted Chelsea Manning in the hacking through which they acquired the information. If the government has persuasive evidence that Assange played an active role in the hacking, his conviction for that behavior would not implicate press freedom.

If there is no probative evidence that Assange broke the law in obtaining the information, or if the government expands its charges to include publication, analysis of the situation changes.  Journalists who have expressed First Amendment concerns are also worried about a “slippery slope”–especially since Assange is such an easily detested and unsympathetic figure, his case could conceivably set an unfortunate precedent. So long as the government prosecutes him only for illegal hacking, however, I think the First Amendment is safe.

This episode comes at a time when the First Amendment is under pressure from the craziness on the Internet, from conspiracy theories promulgated by provocateurs like Alex Jones, and from propaganda mills like Fox News. It’s really tempting to argue that some speech, some “news,” falls within the category of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater. Efforts to ensure that news sources are truthful and fair, however, present us with the same dilemma that faced the nation’s Founders: who gets to decide?

Is freedom of expression dangerous? Yes. The First Amendment enables hate radio, protects propaganda and the spread of deliberate misinformation, and makes it difficult for even conscientious citizens to separate truth from fiction. But the Founders concluded that the alternative– giving government the authority to decide what information we see– would be even more dangerous.

Unless some genius can devise a way to keep information honest without empowering government censorship, slimy characters like Julian Assange will cynically market their activities as First Amendment expression. Chalk it up to the cost of protecting liberty.

 

 

This Is Very Good News

It’s hard these days not to focus on what’s stupid, corrupt and/or depressing. In fact, I find it hard to avoid news that gives me heartburn.

Nevertheless, there are also nuggets of hopefulness available, as I was reminded when I came across this announcement from the Knight Foundation.

MIAMI—Feb. 19, 2019—The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced that it would double its investment in strengthening journalism to $300 million over five years, with a focus on building the future of local news and information, which are essential for democracy to function.

Knight called on individual and institutional funders to join in this opportunity to rebuild trust and foster sustainability in journalism, an essential democratic institution, starting on the local level.

Knight’s initial investments are in scalable organizations committed to serving communities at the local level — all of which are seeking additional support. These organizations are building new business models, strengthening investigative reporting, protecting press freedom, promoting news literacy, and connecting with audiences through civic engagement and technology.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with–and probably tired of–my frequent complaints about the demise of local journalism (just this week, we learned that Indianapolis’ alternative newspaper is also ceasing publication), and the negative effects that the void of local coverage has had on local government.

The causes and consequences of the collapse are not a mystery; and the Knight announcement spelled them out.

Newsrooms across the nation have been decimated by the collapse of traditional business models brought on by the impact of digital technology and social media, which have drawn readers and advertisers to other information sources on the internet. As a result, many communities have turned into news deserts, with little or no local reporting.

“Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters. Without reporters, you can’t develop consistently reliable news reports about what’s happening in your town. Without that reliable news report, you can’t figure out how to run local government. It isn’t rocket science,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president. “We’re not funding one-offs. We’re helping to rebuild a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate.”

The Knight Foundation was created and funded by a once-vibrant news organization, and this initiative will seek new ways–collaborative, digital, and local–to reinvigorate journalism at the community level. The grants will support several national organizations that serve as important resources for local efforts, including the American Journalism Project, Pro-Publica, Report for America and FrontlinePBS; it will also provide resources for defense of the First Amendment, tripling the number of lawyers working on local First Amendment issues and expanding the network of local attorneys available to provide pro bono legal support.

Equally important–and welcome–is the funding allocated to important efforts to bolster what we now call “news literacy,” the battle against disinformation and propaganda.

And finally,

Knight is investing an additional $35 million in research to support the creation and expansion of research centers around the United States. This research will study the changing nature of an informed society in America and will help build an emerging field of study to address pressing questions about the health of an informed society and citizenry in the digital age.

Citizens can only act on the basis of what they know. An absence of credible information–or worse, its displacement by dishonest or manufactured information–makes democratic self-government impossible.

Democratic participation requires accurate and complete information.  I can think of very few initiatives more important than this one.

An Excellent Example

Ever since my days as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I have tried to explain the philosophy behind the First Amendment to well-meaning citizens who simply wanted to shut down those people spreading “bad” ideas, or later, to students who couldn’t understand why people they found hateful (many of whom were, indeed, hateful) were being allowed to peddle their bigotry.

I still remember a hearing held by a City-County Council committee “investigating” the Marion County Library because it allowed minors to access books that the chair of the committee considered inappropriate. (She wasn’t mollified by the fact that the library honored the directives of parents who didn’t want their kids to access certain materials. She explained that a lot of parents weren’t–in her eyes, at least–good parents who would avail themselves of the opportunity to censor their children.)

I don’t know how often I’ve tried to explain that the Bill of Rights–and especially the First Amendment–answers the question “who decides?” The Bill of Rights is a list of things that  government doesn’t get to decide.

I just read one of the very best explanations of that simple rule that I’ve come across. It was written by Wally Paynter, Executive Director of the Tri-State Alliance, in response to folks who want the Evansville Public Library to discontinue its “Drag Queen Story Hour.”

A few quotes:

Some members of the community are trying to limit what library programs are available to the public. It is similar to banning books. As an EVPL patron, I have a choice of what books I read and what programs I attend. However, it is not my right to decide what books other patrons are allowed to read and what programs others are allowed to attend….

Some Christians oppose Santa Claus, stating it takes away from the reason for the season. My pastor does Santa Claus Story Hour at the EVPL locations. Those who oppose the character Santa Claus do not try to stop other parents from bringing their kids to the event. They just don’t take their kids.

The same is true for Halloween. Some Christians oppose the celebration of Halloween. But do we end Halloween events at EVPL, or do we let parents choose what programs to take their kids to?

The letter also calls out the homophobia being expressed during this debate, a reminder that it is all too often marginalized people who are censored. But the most powerful point being made is reflected in the quoted paragraphs: our Constitution protects individual autonomy–the right of each of us to form our own moral, religious and political opinions, to determine what is important in our lives (what philosophers call our telos) and to choose how to live those lives.

So long as we do not harm the person or property of others, and so long as we are willing to respect the same rights for others, we are free to “do our own thing.”

Don’t like that magazine? Don’t read it. Don’t approve of that play? Don’t see it. Think that book is scandalous? Don’t buy it. Don’t approve of drag queens reading books to kids at the library story hour? Don’t take your kids.

In our system, you have the right to decide what you will read, attend and believe. But as Wally Paynter points out, you don’t have the right to decide what other people will read, attend and/or believe.

Live and let live is evidently really hard for some people.

Oh, Texas–You Are So Predictable…

The Texas Attorney General is supporting a school district that expelled a student for failing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Where do I start?

Let’s begin with one of my all-time favorite Supreme Court opinions, written by Justice Jackson in the case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett. It is a famous case, in which Jackson wrote that compelling a gesture of respect for the flag pledge violates the fundamental values of the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression and thought from government intrusion.

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. … [F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

Despite being a lawyer–or so I assume–the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, has consistently demonstrated ignorance of the constitution. He did so once again in this case, issuing a statement saying “School children cannot unilaterally refuse to participate in the Pledge.”

Um…yes, they can.

India Landry, who is 17, was expelled from her school for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That refusal was prompted by her considered belief that the government is not honoring the principles that flag is supposed to represent.

“I felt the flag doesn’t represent what it stands for, liberty & justice for all & I don’t feel what is going on in the country, so it was my choice to remain seated, silently.”

Forgive me if I view Paxton’s stirring–if embarrassingly uninformed–defense of the flag and the pledge as an effort to distract voters from his upcoming trial for fraud. According to the Dallas News, 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for fraud nearly three years ago but is unlikely to go on trial before Election Day.

Paxton’s trials are on hold while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether the prosecutors on the case are being overpaid. The court went on summer recess Wednesday, and won’t hear any cases or issue any major opinions before the fall.

This means they won’t announce a decision in the pay case until September, at the earliest, which experts said will delay Paxton’s trial dates until after the Nov. 6 election — and probably into next year.

You might think that pending fraud charges would be politically damaging, but hey! This is Texas. Republicans in Texas are apparently even less concerned with moral lapses and ignorance of job requirements than  Republicans elsewhere who still support Trump.

Paxton, a Republican, is running for a second term as the state’s top lawyer. Despite the indictments that have hung over him since months after his election in 2014, he has remained popular with conservative Republicans, raking in half a million dollars for his legal defense and boasting record fundraising numbers.

I guess he’s been too busy raising money and defending against fraud charges to research applicable legal precedents…

False Equivalence 101

An article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker references a new book on right-wing media, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. The book–to be published next month by Oxford University Press– is titled, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

It debunks a favorite belief of politicians and journalists. As Toobin writes,

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong.

The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

This assertion sounds as if it is itself the result of propaganda–liberal propaganda, in this case. But as Toobin reports,

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The book examines the way in which that right-wing “ecosystem” works. Stories frequently begin on conspiracy theory sites like Infowars; if they remained there, most people would either fail to encounter them or see them for what they are. But they “migrate” to outlets like Fox News, that claim to follow principles of objective journalism. The authors note that there simply aren’t significant sites on the left that mirror those on the right by trafficking in “chronic falsity;”  furthermore, the “upstream sources” in the center and on the left do adhere to traditional journalistic standards, so they debunk rather than parrot the stories contrived by those few sites that  crank out leftwing propaganda.

This lack of symmetry is why “Pizzagate”–accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and of molesting children in the basement of a pizza parlor–was widely reported, while unverifiable allegations that Trump had raped a 15-year-old quickly died.

The authors’ telling conclusion, based upon their data analysis, was that Trump’s election wasn’t the result of Russia’s (admitted) interference, nor to Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of Facebook.

Rather, it was the feedback loop of right-wing quasi-journalism that had the most impact—and that hypothesis has profound implications not only for the study of the recent past but also for predictions about the not-so-distant future.

This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?