Freedoms of the press and speech are something which is near and dear to my heart. The ability for people to say what they want or broadcast what they want – without fear of government reprisal – is a key pillar of freedom and liberty. I may not like what someone posts on social media or expresses in a newspaper, blog, TV, or radio – but I will defend their ability to give an opinion or air their content.
The recent actions by the New Zealand government in light of last week’s horrific terrorist attack only solidify my point of view.
It is understandable why the Kiwis want to keep video of the attack from public consumption – as several people who have viewed the video have expressed horror by its content. Yet, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has boldly crossed the line into censorship by dictating to Google, Instagram, and Facebook the videos must be removed – or they’ll face reprisals for violation the law.
“This is an issue that I will look to be discussing directly with Facebook,” Adern told reporters on Sunday when asked if Facebook should disable their live-streaming feature. A 22-year-old is under arrest for sharing footage of the attack, and those who post censored versions of the attack video will also be prosecuted. Sky New Zealand pulled Sky News Australia for showing the video, although it isn’t known if it was done at the behest of the government. One can guess they wanted to avoid running afoul of the country’s Office of Film and Literature Classification, who declared the video was not a freedom of speech or information issue.
This is the purest form of hogwash.
Americans are lucky to avoid this situation with the guaranteed protections in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The protections may have been whittled away at over the years – but they still exist. There’s nothing wrong with websites like Facebook or Google deciding to block videos of shootings or suspend accounts if they choose to – as long as it’s not by government edict. There are other websites out there for people to get their fix – or support freelance journalists – if it’s their desire. Individual companies should not be coerced by government officials to wipe away any trace of an attack like it didn’t happen (imagine if the same had been done over September 11th). The images and video are obviously unseemly – one reason why I refuse to watch it – but that’s my choice. The government shouldn’t make it for me.
Dangers still exist. President Donald Trump suggested the FCC or FEC should start looking into Saturday Night Live and late night talk shows. It’s doubtful he’s serious and more than likely just wants to gin up his most fervent supporters into a rhetorical frenzy.
The 2013 proposal by California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to define a “real journalist” was more serious. Feinstein suggested “real journalists” were only those who did work for what could be called “traditional news outlets” aka ABC, CNN, Fox, Huffington Post, or Reason – instead of those who ran their own individual blog. Feinstein’s amendment (which thankfully did not pass) would have made it extremely problematic for those who wish to independently post videos or content on Facebook or YouTube. There were similar fights in court over the filming of police arrests.
Perhaps the best – and worst – part of freedom of the press (and freedom of speech) is the fact it relies on individuals to determine what news they consume, and outlets to police their own. ABC was slow to fire Brian Ross for his many failures, while Brian Williams was only demoted from NBC to MSNBC for lying. How many people will now question anything Reuters’ reporter Joseph Menn writes on Beto O’Rourke – or any other candidate, for that matter – because he admitted to covering up O’Rourke’s involvement in a hacking group. Will Tucker Carlson face actual backlash – in the form of fewer viewers – for whatever it was he said on Bubba the Love Sponge? Freedom of speech and freedom of the press is a double-edged sword – but the idea it should be thrown away because an outlet decides to give journalists a slap on the wrist (or axe to the head) is something which should be resisted at all costs.
What happened in New Zealand is horrific. But deciding to punish those who display video or images of the attack is wrong. It is something which should be resisted in America, and the words of the First Amendment should not be ignored.