Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Media Objectivity and First Amendment Rights

Media Objectivity and First Amendment Rights

The ideal that objectivity is a standard that media should be held up to has been embraced by an American society suspect of sensationalism and other media excesses. However, too much emphasis on maintaining objectivity stifles free speech if all content must meet some arbitrary standard of fairness. This is especially true in the political arena, where free speech fosters the necessary debate to inform citizens of all sides of the salient issues before elections. The media is endangered by business and governmental elite who would prefer that it have no say at all than to have it express any partisan views freely.

Communications businesses such as Verizon Wireless demonstrated on Friday September 28th that they have an inordinate amount of control over free speech in the services that they provide to consumers. Verizon Wireless controversially turned down the request of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, for a text-messaging privilege that would give voluntary users a short cut to get updates (“NARAL’s case…”). Verizon’s reasoning was that it did not wish to offend anyone by seeming to support partisan views: “its messaging system was closed to groups with content or an agenda that ‘may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users’ “(“NARAL’s case…”) Even though it eventually reversed its decision on NARAL (Liptak), the fact remains that Verizon had attempted to stifle free speech on an inconveniently controversial topic in order to keep the content of the communications it provides objective.

Although Verizon Wireless is a private company and First Amendment cases must involve government in order to be valid, the actions of Verizon Wireless would constitute content regulation and a violation of the First Amendment if it were a governmental entity. Text messaging is not traditional media, but it provides a form of new media in which individuals and partisan groups can express their perspectives and foster political debate. The dangerous precedent Verizon set by attempting to suppress it could open the door to possible government involvement and limitation of biased, partisan speech for the sake of impartiality. Such possibilities include “Net neutrality” rules, which “would bar Internet access providers [like Verizon] from favoring or blocking any legal content, application or service” (“NARAL’s case…”) It is just to have rules against overregulation of content, but why should partiality be condemned? Verizon opposes “Net neutrality” rules ostensibly because it wants to be able to favor content that it supports; its actions in the NARAL case ironically imply more sinister motives.

In dealing with traditional media, the government has sought to impose “fair” rules in order that both political parties may have equal representation in the media. The most recent law that applies to the media is the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002, which regulates the financing of political campaigns (“Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act”). The relevant clause deals with partisan issue ads, and states that corporations are prohibited from paying for an ad that mentions a candidate’s name (“Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act”). Corporations include the media, which are technically not allowed to sponsor any ad that takes a biased stance on a controversial issue, but are allowed to express their opinions on issues and even endorse candidates, ironically enough. Although the New York Times has supported the expansion of campaign finance laws in the past out of concern for possible corruption in the campaigning process, it has found itself targeted by the Federal Election Commission under the McCain-Feingold Act. The New York Times has been accused of a violation for giving the radical leftist group MoveOn.org a special discount for an ad it displayed “accusing General David Petraeus of betrayal in advance of his Congressional testimony” (“In defense…”) Whether or not the FEC will prosecute the New York Times for a violation is under investigation still since no political candidate has been expressly named. Nevertheless, the New York Times has come under great scrutiny for supporting a partisan group and this case highlights the dangers of overbroad campaign finance laws that can lead to regulation of free speech. Although the speech under question is an advertisement, the Supreme Court has ruled before in cases where the content of advertisements was regulated that political speech in commercial form is protected (See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan). The New York Times should not be prohibited from supporting a viewpoint that it endorses, since it is already free to have a liberal bias in its content under First Amendment protection.

The First Amendment does not protect only inoffensive, unbiased speech; otherwise there would be no need for a First Amendment. Thus the right of the media to be as partisan as it wants must be protected from interests that would rather have no debate than a free exchange of ideas.

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