The power of transparency in a democratic society

By the end of the Civil War, America had “radically evolved” into an industrial capitalist society where children were forced to work in factories and workers were killed or persecuted for protesting and rioting, said John Ambacher, professor of political science at Framingham State University.

According to Ambacher, the framework of the Constitution wasn’t changed until the famous Labor Act of 1935-36, allowing workers to organize and bargain with their employers without oppression.

“The way they saw the First Amendment, the free speech clause, was in an aspirational sense. It was to be used to change the social and economic structure of American society,” Ambacher said.

On Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Alumni Room, students and faculty gathered in honor of Constitution Week to listen to a panel discussion about the First Amendment as it relates to journalism. Featured speakers included Anne Brennan, regional director of news and operations for Gatehouse Media; Jonathan Albano, legal practitioner in the Boston area who has worked for press organizations such as The Boston Globe; Jennifer Peter, managing editor at The Boston Globe; and Ambacher.

The media and legal experts spoke about freedom of the press, the First Amendment’s importance to democracy, the regulation of free speech, and controversies concerning the media.

Brennan, who was the moderator of the event, asked Peter how the First Amendment affects the way The Boston Globe makes decisions.

Peter said the amendment is a “part of everything we do” at The Boston Globe. It gives reporters a sense of purpose and responsibility “to shine a light on the government, to shine a light on government officials, to hold people accountable, to hold companies accountable, and to make sure the rights of the minority don’t get quashed by the majority.”

She added, any news organization needs the First Amendment for a number of reasons – for instance, to protect journalists from libel and/or to obtain withheld court documents.

Brennan and Ambacher cited New York Times v. Sullivan as an example of the First Amendment protecting the rights of a newspaper. The case ultimately ended in a unanimous decision, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the newspaper because there was no evidence the paper acted with “actual malice” against the public official.

People tend to forget that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and rights from government censorship, not from private people such as newspaper companies or organizations, Brennan said.

For example, the media recently reported that a woman named Juli Briskman lost her job after a video surfaced on the internet of her giving President Donald Trump the bird.

According to Albano, “Unless you have a discrimination claim … employers can say, ‘Hey, sorry, that message is not consistent with our values and we don’t have to keep you as an employee.’” Albano said this is happening more and more to people because of social media.

Brennan added, “What we’re giving away is more than just, ‘I like to buy Clark shoes and dog kibble.’ It’s some very deep information about ourselves.”

Ambacher said, “It seems in the last 20 years that we’ve just sold our souls away.”

Brennan asked about the current limits and regulations of freedom of speech on the internet, at which point, Albano commented on how “massively unregulated” the internet is and how freedom of speech can also result in irresponsible or hate speech.

Ambacher defined hate speech as a type of “spirit murder,” adding, “I mean, you can recover from a broken leg, but … it’s difficult to recover when you’ve been humiliated, dehumanized by somebody because of your race, because of your religion, sexual orientation.”

He continued to ask the forum questions such as, “Where do you draw the line on speech that’s humiliating and speech that’s harassment, and how do you protect your equal opportunity when someone is saying hateful comments about your race, gender, or sexual orientation?

“It’s a difficult call. … It’s a gamble. And maybe there is no alternative to that gamble. … I go back and forth – it’s like a ping-pong ball. … A lot of this is hope … and also it gets down to citizens evolving in terms of protecting their liberties and freedoms,” Ambacher said.

Albano referenced American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes and his thoughts on freedom of speech and the power of the truth. Holmes states that if you put all the facts out there – the good, the bad, and the hateful, the truth will eventually win.

“That’s been a cornerstone of First-Amendment thinking,” Albano said. “I find today scary because, you know, we’ll [have to wait and] see if that’s true.”

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