“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” – Noam Chomsky
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” — Voltaire
One of the topics that came up a lot in class was freedom of speech. The first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ensures that the federal government will not pass any law restricting freedom of expression or freedom of the press. As uncomfortable as it is to hear abhorrent opinions, such as those from Alex Jones, those who hold those views are – and should be – still legally allowed to express them. As we saw in the Noam Chomsky video “Manufacturing Consent,” Noam Chomsky is a big supporter of free speech. In the video, Chomsky defends a Robert Faurisson’s right to express his views. Logically, there is no way Chomsky would agree with the ‘findings’ of this Holocaust denier. No Jewish person with a memory – especially one born in 1928 like Chomsky – would agree with Faurrison. However, as Chomsky pointed out in a written statement, Faurrison does have a right to voice his opinions. As we saw in the video, people sometimes mistake support for freedom of expression with support for the views expressed. This written statement was published as a foreword in the denier’s book without Chomsky’s permission. People mistook this as Chomsky supporting Faurrison and probably thought this might be a case of legitimation. Having Noam Chomsky’s name on the foreword of his book gives Faurrison more legitimacy as Chomsky is an internationally renowned academic. This could be somewhat similar to Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones – people who would normally ignore this content may be exposed solely because Jones got an interview or Chomsky’s name appears on the cover.
Legitimation is not the only effect in journalism (I discuss six of them in the past two posts); the messenger effect is another. In the textbook, one of the conditions under which journalists participate in the messenger effect is when they depict an event so as to maximize its attention-getting quality. This is related to the visual and narrative structural biases – visual bias brings more initial eyeballs to the story, while storytelling retains those eyeballs.
This brings us to the main point of this post: the New York Times posted a story in the Insider about free speech and its publishing of a 1960 advertisement titled “Heed Their Rising Voices” calling for people to donate to support peaceful protest against racism in the South. The ad can be viewed here.
The advertisement declared that thousands of black students that were demonstrating nonviolently in the South were “being met by an unprecedented wave of terror,” making charges of police brutality against law enforcement. Some of the incidents listed in the ad did not actually happen, so L. B. Sullivan (police commissioner in Montgomery) sued the New York Times for defamation on behalf of the police department, and sought the equivalent of around four million dollars. While Sullivan won in Alabama, the case eventually went to the Supreme Court, who decided in favor of free press.
This is the case in which the Supreme Court decided that malice had to be attached to misinformation in order for language to be defamation. In this article, the Times quotes Justice William Brennan saying that because the Times did not fact-check the advertisement, it could not have been malicious as there was no intent behind it.
I suspect that if the advertisement had been published today, the advertisers wouldn’t present any false information – the institutional racism in the justice system of the United States is extremely well-documented, and the availability of visual evidence would make the ad all the more persuasive. When a journalist reports on police brutality today, it is still not defamation, even when visual and narrative structural biases are employed to gain larger readership, unless they are doing so with malicious intent.
My final comments on free speech come after comments from comedian Trevor Noah:
In America, I find a lot of the time people conflate freedom of speech as consequence free. But really, freedom of speech means that your government won’t come after you. …I grew up in a country where the government could come after you if you said something. You are free to say what you like, somebody may still punch you though.
If someone were to spew Holocaust denial or say the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, the government cannot stop them. However, if I were to, say, break their nose, I would not be infringing on their freedom of speech. It would, however, be assault and battery so it would still be illegal.