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Free Speech

The first amendment to the constitution guarantees the right of free speech and
of the press. Unfortunately, some individuals have used this right to protect
themselves from litigation when they produce material that is pornographic,
hateful or when they use ethically questionable methods when reporting a story.

The government has attempted to intervene through passing laws and imposing
regulations. The problem with placing restrictions on free speech is that the
question of who will decide what is appropriate and what is not will inevitably
be raised. There are two positions when debating this issue : 1) protect free
speech even though some people abuse it or 2) freedom of speech does not
outweigh the need for ethical principles. Two of the ethical dilemmas facing the
media today are the conflicts of freedom of the press versus individual rights,
and the right of the press to refuse to reveal their sources. The media has
often claimed that the public has a right to know but they do not limit that
right to know to a certain area of public concern. Reporters have written
stories on the sexual lives of movie stars claiming public interest but simply
because the public is curious does not mean they have a right to know.

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Certainly, most people would not want their entire life story being printed as
public knowledge and subject to ridicule. The issue of privacy was brought to
the forefront by the untimely demise of Princess Diana. She was being chased by
reporters who had been following her all night when she was involved in the car
accident that killed her. Many people then criticized the press who had been
following her all night. Does the media have the right to follow and harass
people simply on the basis that they are public figures or do public figures
deserve to have a private life? The issue of revealing sources has been debated
for years, particularly after the Watergate scandal of the seventies. Recently
an issue regarding the confidentiality of a source arose but for a different
reason. Dan Cohen is sued two newspapers for breach of contract because they
promised him confidentiality when he provided them with information. After they
had received the information the newspapers decided that the information
reflected more on Cohen and proceeded to print the information with Cohen’s
name. Cohen won the suit but the damage to his reputation was already done.

Those are only two of the many issues involved in free speech. Ethical restraint
would set guidelines for journalists and protect individual rights. The first
issue would be to set objective and universal guidelines so that there would be
no debate over who sets the ethical code. The problem would be enforcing these
guidelines. The Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society of
Professional Journalists both have ethical codes, which include respecting those
whom you are reporting about and keeping confidentiality. Those ethical
standards are not enforced and so some do not follow them. Some people believe
in free speech at all costs. Free speech without restraint causes public outcry
and violates people’s civil rights like their right to privacy. The difficulty
is that people see any form of restraint as censorship and then claim that the
government will begin running our lives and making our decisions. If the ethical
standards agreed upon were universal they would satisfy everyone and if the
journalists would follow them there would be no need for government
intervention. Using the example of Dan Cohen’s issue of confidentiality the
ethics of the reporters involved can be analyzed. The act of printing his name,
in and of itself, was not wrong. The intention of the journalists was to inform
the public since Cohen was associated with a politician who was running for
governor and the information Cohen had was on the opposing candidate. The
circumstances were the gubernatorial race was in its final days. The reporters
had the right to accept and publish the information since it was public record
and did not violate the rights of the opposing candidate. They exercised their
right to free speech and of the press in that respect. The ethical issue was
whether the reporters violated Cohen’s rights when they broke their promise of
confidentiality and printed his name with the article. The question then would
be should they have printed his name? Following Aristotle’s ethical theory of
the golden mean, the journalists were wrong. The extreme one side would have
been to print his name while the extreme on the other side would have been not
to print anything. A compromise would have been to print the information with
the statement that the source was connected and was biased. Aristotle, however,
believed in virtue and so did not believe in lying. The reporters were also
wrong because they broke their promise to Cohen and so lied to him. If the first
position were accepted and free speech was permitted, unchecked the consequences
would be severe. Nothing would stop people from publishing false information or
keep pornographers from distributing their material wherever they wish. One
person’s right to free speech would infringe on any number of another person’s
rights. The press would lose all credibility in the eyes of the public. The
reporters who printed Cohen’s name would not be held accountable because few
people would believe them anyway. Riots would break out during marches because
the opposing view would be allowed to voice their opinion wherever and whenever
they chose. Hate groups such as the Klu Klux clan could paper entire cities with
propaganda, which could include false information. The press could infringe upon
privacy rights to gain their stories and could even invent their own news with
no standards to live up to. Eventually, the government would have to intervene.

If the second position were accepted and an ethical code were adopted and
enforced the media would gain credibility in the eyes of the public. The
standard of material presented would be higher and it would all be true. The
reporters from the example would be held accountable because most would agree
that lying to an individual in order to get a story is wrong. The people would
be responsible for enforcing the ethical restraints and not the government. The
society as a whole would be better informed and able to make better decisions.

The principles and values important in this issue are and individual’s right to
speak freely, a reporter’s right to inform the public, Rawl’s veil of ignorance
in discussing what is fair and Aristotle’s theory of virtues. Position 2 is more
convincing because it provides a guideline of what is fair. Position 1 may seem
like an extreme but without any restraint at all it is possible. Position 2
attempts to set up objective guidelines which everyone can agree on while
Position 1 allows everyone to decide for themselves and that type of
subjectivism negates justice, which most people agree, is needed. The debate
over what type of restraint should be placed on the first amendment and who
should enforce that restraint if indeed any restraint at all should be allowed
has continued for years. No one wants their right to free speech infringed upon
and yet no one wants any of their other rights violated either. Journalists have
been using the right to free speech and of the press to use questionable methods
in gathering information and reporting the news. Without objective and universal
ethical standards no one is going to win this argument.


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