The First Amendment Under Attack

The legitimate press plays a vital role in our democratic republic. By routing out corruption and letting people know what’s going on so they can have a voice in things, a responsible press tries to keep government and local agencies on a straight path to guard the public interest. The news media can also provide an outlet to various voices to spread understanding of different points of view and thereby promote tolerance.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states “… Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The idea that people can derive the truth by hearing from competing views and drawing their own conclusions, while noble, only works if people really do this and the reporters are truthful. The 2016 Elections was the first time that fake online sources figured into an election in a big way. We are still learning our way when it comes to who we can trust and who we can’t. Unfortunately, this will take some time to sort out. Hopefully, by the next Presidential election, the legitimate press will have worked out a better way to get the true information to the public on social media.

Drawing from a November 4, 2017 KPCC broadcast on fake news and the First Amendment comes the voices of Eugene Volokh, David Snyder, and Mark Marino.

Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA’s school of law said, “Fake news is also constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. The only types of speech that are constitutionally unprotected are libel and perjury.” He goes on to say that “We are wired to be easily duped. They figure out what we want to hear and they give it to us.” Which is why fake news is so effective.

It doesn’t help when the viewing public craves sleazy, sensationalistic, superficial stories. If that is what they are drawn to, then that is what the money-driven media will give them. We have to demand that our news coverage addresses the facts not the bedroom habits or outrageous comments of political officials.

The executive director of the First Amendment Coalition David Snyder said, “The solution to speech that you disagree with is not to make the person shut up,” but to “speak again.” In other words, challenge what they say and route out the truth from the lies. He feels that people will eventually rely on the news outlets that work hard to tell the truth.

The upside of this is that people learn not to take the news media at face value. Reporters are people after all, with their own set of biases and agendas. But the downside is when we doubt everything and don’t know where to turn for the truth. Snyder said, “That’s one of the potential objectives of those who throw around the name fake news, to muddy the waters sufficiently that people don’t think anyone can tell them what really happened.” He says this moves us closer to a dictatorship.

Meanwhile, programmers are trying to come up with apps that can distinguish between fake news (or misinformation) and credible news. They hope to block bot sites, trolls and other spreaders of fake news. A bot is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the internet, akin to a robocall. Twitter recently came out with a bot blocker called Block Bot which sweeps Twitter for nasty Twitter users, and botcheckme claims to use advanced machine learning techniques to detect propaganda bots on Twitter.

But obviously, the ultimate fake news controller is the reading public itself, who must check things out for themselves. USC associate professor of writing Mark Marino says “news consumers should look at a story’s URL and think about the quality of the news outlet, look at additional sources to ensure there is support for the story, listen to others, and check their own biases and privileges.”

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