by Lowman S. Henry | March 19, 2004

Rights of free speech, press under assault by state and federal governments

Freedom of speech was of such paramount importance to our founding fathers that the right to speak freely was enshrined in the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States . On this subject the framers of the Constitution were abundantly clear: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . “

Throughout the 225 year history of our nation this right, like all the others, have been tested, tried and trampled. Today, our freedoms of speech and press are under assault from many quarters. On the national level, chilling efforts are underway to curb the free speech rights of broadcasters. Here in Pennsylvania , legislation has actually been introduced that would violate the sanctity of the news reporter-news source relationship.

The infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl half-time show has thrust decency on the airwaves into the forefront of the culture wars. There is widespread agreement that the Jackson incident went beyond the bounds of good taste. However, both Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are showing signs of over-reacting to the point of “abridging” the free speech rights of the nation’s broadcasters.

There is no doubt that certain “entertainers” and “shock jocks” push the envelope past the bounds of decency and good taste. Unfortunately, the rules regarding what is and is not permissible on the airwaves are vague and subject to individual interpretation. For instance, I would certainly hold a different view of what would be appropriate to say on my radio show than what Howard Stern might think is alright to say on his. The U.S. Constitution, however, gives us both the right to speak our mind.

The current FCC crackdown on broadcasters raises concern because of the imprecise nature of the rules. Talk show hosts, jocks, and even news reporters are left wondering exactly what can be said and what cannot. To leave arbitration of the rules up to a governmentally-appointed regulatory agency smacks of Soviet-style censorship and is not consistent with either Constitutional intent, or the guiding principles of our democracy.

Several years ago the same government agencies were used by those seeking to enact stronger equal time laws. Dubbed “hush Rush” laws, because they were aimed at getting conservative broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh off the air, the movement was ultimately seen for what it was – an attempt at censorship – and abandoned.

Clearly some broadcasters have passed the point of decent behavior. But it should be left to broadcasters – and the advertisers who support their programs – to police their own ranks. To the degree that the FCC institutes rules of behavior, they need to be precisely drawn and careful not to trample on free speech rights.

Another trampling of such rights is underway right here in Pennsylvania . State Representative Ellen Bard of Montgomery County wants to amend a state law in such a manner as to decimate the right of reporters to protect confidential sources. The ability of news reporters, whether print or broadcast, to obtain information from a source without revealing the name of that person, has been an invaluable asset in countless investigative pieces.

Aside from the right to publish itself, there is probably no more important or sacrosanct right for journalists – and sources – that the ability to protect the confidentiality of sources. It is appalling to see Bard try and abrogate that right. Every Pennsylvanian who values the presence of a free press to perform a watchdog function on government should be concerned about Bard’s bill and urge their legislators to never let it see the light of day.

Whether it is growing national censorship of broadcasters, or a legislative assault on the confidentiality of news sources, efforts at restricting our fundamental right to freedom of speech should be view with suspicion and resisted at all costs. Because once we start down that slippery slope we will ultimately end up with no freedom at all.