Assault on Press Freedom
Date: Monday, November 27 2006
Reporters without borders lists Canada at 17th place, the USA at 56th
San Francisco Chronicle Sunday, November 26, 2006
ASSAULT ON PRESS FREEDOM
In a nation that preaches the virtues of democracy, the United States government has consistently eroded the media's ability to report and, by extension, undermines the ideals it professes to uphold
WILLIAM BENNETT TURNER
*William Bennett Turner is a San Francisco lawyer who teaches a course on the First Amendment and the press at UC Berkeley. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vladimir Posner, the former Soviet journalist, used to claim the press was freer in the Soviet Union than it was in the United States. This was during Glasnost, as the Soviet empire was disintegrating. Posner explained that the government was dysfunctional, so journalists did not have to worry about the official censors, and the media had not been privatized, so journalists were not accountable to commercial sponsors and advertisers. The result was a kind of anarchic freedom. The press was free, but only for a brief window in time.
The window in America once was open wide and, I thought, permanently so. I used to tell my students on the first day of class that we had the freest speech and press in the world.
I can't do that anymore.
In recent years American press freedom has eroded. Many other countries are now ranked freer than the United States -- all of the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand and many others. In the most recent survey by Freedom House, an independent American-based organization that assesses liberties around the world, the United States tied for 17th place, with the Bahamas, Estonia, Germany and others.
The international free-press advocates Reporters Without Borders ranked us 53rd, tied with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga. These rankings may not be scientifically valid, for a lot of subjective judgment is involved. But it is sobering to see the consensus that the United States is no longer anywhere near the top.
By virtue of Supreme Court decisions, the U.S. press remains freer than the press elsewhere in a few respects.
First, our law provides significantly greater protection for the press against libel suits, especially by government officials. In many countries, libel is a bullying tool for officials and the powerful to silence dissent. Under the 1964 decision in New York Times vs. Sullivan, insults, parodies and vicious criticism of officials are protected by the First Amendment.
Second, our law protects the press against almost any attempt by government to impose a "prior restraint" on what can be published. That is, the government is not allowed to censor, in advance, information the press may wish to publish. The famous "Pentagon Papers" case in 1971 allowed the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish information about a classified Defense Department study on American involvement in Vietnam, despite the government's contention that publication would impair national security.
Third, perhaps unique in the world, our law protects the advocacy of dangerous, potentially divisive ideas. One can preach overthrow of the government -- domestic "regime change" -- religious hatred, racial discrimination and even criminal activity. Under the Supreme Court's 1969 decision in Brandenburg vs. Ohio, government may not suppress ideas, however repugnant to most, unless their expression amounts to incitement to imminent unlawful acts.