Definition of free speech, press discussed by panel

Alexa Ura

The distinction between the established press and new media continues to create differences of opinion on the protection sanctioned by the First Amendment regarding organizations like WikiLeaks.

A panel of experts said the transparency produced by the publication of classified state information and its implications on the stability of society through governmental secrecy is dangerous at the Thursday night Free Speech Dialogues, an event hosted once a semester by the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism.

Linda Greenhouse, a lecturer at Yale Law School and former New York Times reporter, said the values of transparency and privacy are in a never-ending conflict.

“It’s scary when we look at WikiLeaks and realize that one individual can disestablish American society,” she said. “We honor the concept of whistle-blowers until they blow the whistle and then prosecute them as leakers.”

Greenhouse said the First Amendment should trump secrecy, but society is still conflicted when it comes to government promoted secrecy.

“Unless we view the First Amendment as something we all share and the press as a public surrogate instead of a separate entity, the press will be in a serious struggle when it comes to the truth,” she said.

Wake Forest Law School professor Michael Curtis said he believes the freedom of press and speech overlap because they have the same general purpose. But the institutional press, news corporations and established organizations have certain privileges that don’t belong to anyone else.

“This is undemocratic and a dangerous approach,” he said. “It is not a violation of freedom of expression because the government isn’t doing anything legally, but the functionality of the free speech system must be concerned with what private, organized mobs do.”

Curtis said the American people would think it was appropriate if The New York Times “passively obtained” information and published it the way WikiLeaks did.

If the press is given information that is truthful and it is published, the media will not be prosecuted. However, the problem lies with who is considered “the press”, he said.

“Private action is not considered a violation of constitutional rights,” Curtis said. “If organizations like WikiLeaks are not considered press, then what do we do?”

Jack Shafer, a Reuters columnist and former deputy editor of Slate, said the game of revealing secrets can become politically advantageous for an administration and it is not uncommon for the biggest whistle-blowers to be political aides, secretaries and military officials.

“The more I read and write about government secrecy, the more I realize that it is not designed to keep secrets from enemies but from the public,” he said. “The tribes of Yemen and Somalia know about the military drones attacking their homes, but us as citizens are out of the loop.”

Shafer said the reason for so much secrecy among governmental information is the result of a “desire to expand power” through the distribution of such secrets. Because of the government’s desire to prohibit investigation of secrecy, journalists are thought to discourage this power, like WikiLeaks inventor Julian Assange is accused of doing, he said.

“I still believe in protecting acts of journalism,” he said. “The only real check we have on moments of hysteria, like that of post-9/11, is the press and that idea rejects the maxim that we can’t be freed because we must be saved first.”