Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Freedom of Speech: Ours to Lose

Is it “Freedom of Speech” or “Freedom of Speech…as long as you don’t say too much?”
The Internet has sure changed the game, hasn’t it? Where once responsible writing and journalism were the expected behavioral norm, now, it appears that with the increased exposure and freedom, and by extension greater power, come greater irresponsibility.
It may have been intended to be funny. Someone with too much time on his or her hands thought that declaring that musician/philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi was dead at age 49, a few days before Christmas, was somehow a good idea. On its face it was shocking and terrible news—a man who, by all accounts is a good man, a generous public figure and a husband and father with a fine reputation both in his community and in the world community---was dead of mysterious causes. Deeper thought about it only makes the fraud worse---he has a wife and children who might have been browsing the web—what would their reaction be if they had, for whatever reasons, not seen him all day? Imagine the panic that would have set in. The man also has literally millions of fans and admirers, including a lot of very young teenaged girls, especially, who might have reacted badly, and who might have injured themselves, or worse.
It’s not the first time that something like this has happened on the internet---it’s just the most recent. A recent court ruling states that so called “bloggers” (“blog” is short for “web log”) are NOT subject to the protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution where journalists are concerned. In short, just because you go online and write a regular posting (your humble columnist is among this group) does NOT make you a journalist. When you work for a newspaper, or magazine, or radio and TV, and some internet sites, you are protected (your humble columnist was also a newspaper reporter in New York for years, and as such was subject to those very same rights) as long as you are careful to check your facts and be able to back them up. As a reporter, it was my job to tell the story of whatever I was assigned to cover, from local town board meetings to criminal activity. As a columnist here, (writer of opinion pieces that incorporate facts with my own thoughts) I still must adhere to the rules of journalism. I am free, as everyone is, to voice my opinions, but the facts that inform them must be valid and true, or I, and more importantly, the newspaper, could be subject to lawsuits for libel.
Bloggers on the internet have no such restriction, excepting themselves. Oh, it is possible to sue someone for libel, but after the fact it is akin to prosecuting someone for stealing your car and wrecking it. You make them accountable eventually, but the damage is done. A car is a car, but a reputation is altogether different, and if someone ruins it by writing blatant untruths, it can ruin a life, or lives.
Our freedom of speech is maybe our greatest freedom. To exploit it in such stupid ways is the real crime because too much abuse might make it go away, and if that happens, we are no better than those we deride for their more restrictive societies.
So, happily, may Jon Bon Jovi live forever, and the same wish to our First Amendment rights.

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