One of the things that sets America apart from most other countries is the freedom we enjoy to give our opinions and basically say what we want to say. The importance of this right was reflected in numerous quotes of Thomas Jefferson who placed freedom of speech and freedom of the press at the highest level of our constitutionally guaranteed liberties. The right to speak one’s mind was further reinforced by a revolutionary new concept in America when early on our Supreme Court ruled that truth was a defense to libel and slander. Such a defense had not existed in the Old World, or in most countries of the world ruled by despotic sovereigns.
Even the Bible comments on how damaging false statements and gossip can be, labeling the tongue a lethal weapon. Long ago American jurisprudence made the decision, however, that the freedom to express oneself and the freedom of the written word is so sacred in our culture that even if a false statement is made, the person who made it should not necessarily be held accountable. In the case of Smith v. Evening News, the Supreme Court of the United States set the standard, at least for public figures. Even though a statement is proved to be false, unless the alleged victim can show not only that it was false, but also that it was made with malice, such a statement would not support damages. The theory is that we should not put any restraint on those who report the news and facts to the general public, and they should be basically unrestrained, at least when it comes to publication of facts and events related to public figures.
Although public figures certainly bear the greatest burden of slanderous and libelous statements made about them in the press, we, as citizens of a free nation, also bear a burden in support of free speech. Recent events in the Near East where a 14 minute video that sparked demonstrations, riots and attacks on our embassies was proved to be not the handiwork of our government, but the handiwork of a person believed to be part of a fringe group. Citizens of other countries of the world not familiar with how sacred we hold the individual’s right to express himself or herself cannot understand fully a country such as America allowing false or libelous statements to be made, particularly about beliefs they hold sacred in their own countries and cultures.
Another example of how harmful and hurtful false press can be is recorded in history calls the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion was never a real rebellion, but a story made by a group of newspaper reporters in Chicago on a rainy day who had nothing better to do. As a result of their false and fictitious story, dozens of missionaries were slaughtered in China.
While I would not change the protections of a free press in America, I do believe it is time for us to take a look at the standards by which we hold people accountable. This is particularly true with the technological advances made today whereby anyone with a computer can instantly communicate all the way around the world. I’m not sure bloggers with no credentials and no restraint should be afforded the same protections as what we generally refer to collectively as “the media.”
I know of local bloggers who have poor writing skills and little in-depth knowledge of how we govern ourselves and even less regard for the truth who have published things on their blogs that are complete figments of their imagination, and in some instances hurtful to people.
I’ve always believed that if we, as a people, choose to protect free speech, we should not necessarily protect a lie. Perhaps, at least with individual bloggers, we should recognize the standard laid down by the Supreme Court in the New York Times vs. Sullivan: A) is it false, B) was there any effort made to ascertain the truthfulness of the statement; and C) was the falsehood harmful to the person about whom it was published or written.
Carl Parker has practiced law in Port Arthur since 1958. He is a 1958 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law. Elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1962 and the Senate in 1976, Parker continued to practice law while writing and sponsoring hundreds of bills that became laws relating to every aspect of life in Texas, including many regarding consumer safety. His e-mail is cap1934 [at] aol [dot] com.