Defending free speech

Jun 16, 2016

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

     We need to hear things that we don't agree with, if only to be better prepared to argue against such ideas.

     A free exchange of views is a foundational element of the First Amendment and its metaphorical home ground, the "Marketplace of Ideas." There is no other reasonable approach to public discourse in a society dedicated to free expression.

     To act otherwise—to suppress speech, even that to which one is vehemently opposed—is to betray core principles on which this nation is based.

     Yet, people try—from attempts to ban news outlets from reporting on political campaigns for our highest office, to attempts by various White House administrations to control or block press coverage, to ongoing efforts to ban speakers from college campuses, to attempts to hijack public programs for political gain or publicity.

     Most recently, likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump on Monday banned The Washington Post from receiving credentials to report on his campaign, saying the action was "based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting" by the newspaper. Trump also has refused at various times to credential news operations or individual journalists from BuzzFeed, Politico, The Huffington Post, Univision and The Des Moines Register.

     After the decision kicked up a furor, including criticism from international journalism organizations, Trump called CNN Tuesday evening to say that if elected, he would not enforce such a ban on journalists in the White House press room —"In my case, I'm a person running for office. I rent these large arenas ... so I have an option. ... When I'm representing the United States, I wouldn't do that."

     In a written statement, Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron said the ban was "nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press. When coverage doesn't correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished." Baron also said his staff will continue to report on Trump "as it has all along—honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically and unflinchingly."

     To be sure, President Barack Obama has also faced criticism from journalists in recent years for what several informal press groups have called heavy-handed attempt to control the news, including outright bans on reporters at certain events and by, critics say, preventing government experts from speaking with news organizations out of fear the experts would conflict with policies—an approach rooted more in politics than science.

     Both Bush administrations clashed openly with journalists—by name. And in an August 2014 article, The Atlantic reported that President Richard Nixon "read a summary of each morning's news and then directed his staff how to respond, noting in the margins which reporters he liked and disliked," at least once banning a Los Angeles Times reporter.

     On college campuses, a list of more than 300 attempts since 2000 to block speakers on college campuses has been compiled by the free speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE also has reported that both conservative and liberal groups—increasingly the latter—have been more successful in recent years in blocking speakers.

     The issue hits close to home. Recently the Newseum, where I work, faced two unsuccessful attempts to block programs to which some objected: written pressure to refuse to rent conference space to a private group showing a controversial film about a Russian political figure; and another where protesters—long before an announced Q&A opportunity—repeatedly interrupted a Newseum Institute program featuring a former Israeli Defense Force official speaking about the IDF's use of social media.

     Newseum CEO Jeff Herbst responded in both cases by saying "the Newseum has a bedrock commitment to free speech and free expression. We believe that this is the only approach possible to understanding the complex issues we face. That is also why we hold public discussions on important issues." Herbst later received anti-Semitic mail, which he called "pathetic and sad," adding "if the attempt was to diminish the Newseum's and my commitment to free speech, they have failed. This kind of bigotry will solve nothing."

     Certainly these programs and others involve issues on which there are passionate, genuine differences to be aired—including any challenges to the credibility of the filmmaker and speaker. But forcibly trying to close down the speech or intimidate the speaker you oppose is 180 degrees counter to freedom of expression—a garden-variety, discredited variation of the commonly named "heckler's veto."

     An irony of attempts to muzzle the press or those who speak out is that the web effectively cancels out both the effort and the result. We live at a time in which more people can speak directly to more people than any time in history. Trying to block a speech or a film screening does less than preventing any "message" from reaching the public—it promotes it, while raising doubts about the motives of those who value silence over communication.

     Engaging in the "marketplace of ideas" does not denote acceptance or endorsement. Rather, it promotes the ideal expressed by English poet and scholar John Milton in his Aeropagitica in 1664: "Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.