Freedom of Speech as History Unfolds
As I write this, Iraqi citizens with the help of U.S. Marines are working vigorously to topple an imposing 20-foot statue of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad – an event Iraqis would’ve considered incomprehensible only a day or two ago. The statue, and the regime it symbolized, are crumbling into ruins before our eyes; Saddam’s reign of terror is over, we hope and trust. The Iraqi people are jubilant, their long-repressed thirst for freedom suddenly unquenchable as they pour into the streets of their capital, dancing and cheering wildly. Thanks to the Americans, the British, and other freedom-loving nations of the coalition forces, oppressed persons are becoming free as I write these very words.
What better moment to ponder the meaning of freedom to us as Americans, and to peoples throughout the world. And what better time to reflect on those freedoms that seem so quintessentially American – free speech and free press.
I daresay that the history unfolding in Baghdad – the triumph of freedom over oppression -- would not be occurring at this hour if America had not been forced to endure the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that day changed the course of American history in ways not yet fully known. At the same time, those events are changing history in other parts of the world, as we are witnessing this day in Iraq.
In the past 19 months, free speech and free press have been bound up unavoidably in the struggle to eradicate terrorism at home and at its roots around the globe. The First Amendment could have easily become a victim of this struggle, because the openness we are afforded by free speech and free press seems to make us more vulnerable to those who would harm us. Better to cut back on freedom of speech if it keeps us safer, some would say.
Indeed, the First Amendment did not escape such challenges in 2002. Government agencies cracked down on the amount and type of information readily available to the press and public. Reporters were often frustrated at the lack of access to information as they talked to government sources or tried to obtain documents. New legislation to strengthen homeland security had dubious impacts on civil liberties. Numerous journalism conferences, seminars, and reports chronicled examples of restricted access and concluded that we had entered a new era of reduced First Amendment freedoms.
But if certain government officials thought it prudent to limit information and overstepped the constitutional boundary in the process, the First Amendment still endured. Courts were called upon to adjudicate a number of such disputes and, with some exceptions, ruled in favor of openness. And many reporters were just forced to work harder, finding new sources and new ways of obtaining information the public had a right to know.
Fears of a First Amendment retreat were allayed to a significant degree by the time American forces began their assault on Iraq in March 2003. For the first time, 600 journalists from American and foreign news outlets were “embedded” in fighting units, broadcasting and otherwise transmitting live, uncensored accounts of the military campaign. It marked a first, as ABC’s Ted Koppel noted from his vantage point with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division: “a total convergence of access and satellite technology.”
Still, critics complained that the embedded reporters were cheerleaders for the military brass, or that they offered only tiny snippets of a much bigger and incomplete picture. But no one could argue that the censored pool reporting of the first Gulf war or the lack of battlefield access during the war in Afghanistan were preferable alternatives. Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, concluded that the embedded journalists “have clearly braved difficult conditions to bring viewers and readers the most vivid, compelling and instantaneous coverage in the history of war.”
The First Amendment is, at its core, about preventing government censorship of speech and press. War is its greatest challenge – and its greatest threat. The practice of “embedding” journalists in military units is without question a positive step for the First Amendment, and suggests that the goals of battlefield security and an informed public are not irreconcilable. It comes as a welcome turn of events, surprising those who feared we were on a downward and irreversible “slippery slope” after Sept. 11.
Nonetheless, this volume of The First Amendment and the Media pays special attention to government actions that limited access to information in 2002. The book features an entire new section devoted to this topic, with chapters on a range of issues related to homeland security in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. (A fuller assessment of war coverage and the embedded journalists program will have to come later.) As always, this edition also looks at a much broader landscape of government actions – from Supreme Court rulings to local ordinances – that affected the First Amendment rights of media speakers.
Most of these 52 chapters were written by members of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council. Chairman Robert Corn-Revere again compiled the draft outline that would become (with some tinkering as the year’s events unfolded) the roadmap for this year’s book. To him, and to all of our authors, we express our sincere appreciation.
It seems fitting that The First Amendment and the Media – 2003 is published under the auspices of The Media Institute’s Cornerstone Project, a public awareness program celebrating the First Amendment. This constitutional guarantee is indeed something to be celebrated, but it is also something to be guarded and protected. Events since Sept. 11 have shown us how easily the First Amendment can be trampled, especially when threats to homeland security are perceived.
On a positive note, the willingness of the government to allow firsthand reporting of the war in Iraq is a hopeful sign, and certainly more in keeping with the value we traditionally place on the First Amendment. Lest we take this freedom for granted, we need only recall the images of the exuberant Iraqis, dragging the broken statue head of Saddam through Baghdad streets. This was their first act of free expression. For them it was the beginning, we hope, of that special freedom we have always enjoyed in this country. The motto of the Cornerstone Project says it best – “Free Speech: The Language of America.”
Richard T. Kaplar
The Media Institute
April 9, 2003
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