“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
It is those four small words, in the middle of the first amendment, that gives us the most important tool to challenge the abuse of power. “Or of the press.” As an independent, free press, we have the ability to call to account those with political power. Without this right, there is no democracy.
As Eleanor Roosevelt has famously said, “With freedom comes responsibility.” The media must use this power to investigate where there is a need for accurate information and tell the stories people need to know. And it is up to the American people to view information through a critical lens and make their own informed decisions, using their own voices to speak up on the issues that matter most. A strong democracy is an informed democracy, where every citizen has the right to information, the right to think for themselves and the right to speak for themselves.
Free speech is so fundamental to the American body politic and our relationship with government that we, sadly, can also take it for granted. Sometimes it takes an example from another part of the world to remind us of the immense value of our own First Amendment.
Recently, the government of Turkey began action to shut down the press, following the failed coup attempt. Arrest warrants were issued for newspaper staff and dozens of media outlets were shut down. For many years, Turkey has had more free-expression cases filed against it in the European Court of Human Rights than any other signatory to the convention. The Alliance wrote a letter to Vice President Biden in August asking that he prioritize press freedom on his visit to Turkey.
In this election cycle, we have seen Donald Trump continually bash the media, even blacklisting publications from his campaign. It wasn’t just theatrics though; it was a dangerous threat to the first amendment. Trump has also said that, if elected, he said he plans to “loosen” the libel laws in the United States so that he can have an easier time suing news organizations.
In America, press reporters serve as public watchdogs, holding government, corporate, union and other powerful officials accountable for their actions. They are the eyes and ears of our democracy.
However, in a digital communications world, there are challenges to the role and impact of credible reporting. As Facebook recently aimed to automate trending stories, it quickly became apparent that false stories were going viral. When anyone can broadcast anything to the entire world, how can you tell what is important … or even true?
The abundance of information from the expanding number of media sources available makes it more important than ever for all publishers to adhere to stringent verification procedures to fact-check the statements, images or videos used by others. Only those who do so will be able to build and maintain public trust and preserve the power of the First Amendment.
Free Speech Week is October 17-23, 2016. For more information and to participate in Free Speech Week visit www.freespeechweek.org.
David Chavern is former President & CEO of the News/Media Alliance. Chavern has 30 years of experience in executive strategic and operational roles. Prior to the Alliance, he completed a decade-long tenure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.