Fake News and the First Amendment

Fake news is very hard to distinguish       from the real thing, and we have to     balance actions against fake news with    First Amendment rights.

REALLY? Is that true, I wondered, as I listened to NPR’s talk show version of CNN style hyper news, “On Point,” hosted by Tom Ashcroft, from WBUR.

This topic is perhaps more important now than it was when I first posted this. I’ve added some new links at the bottom of the post, and will try to keep this updated.

The event that precipitated the show was the “Pizzagate” scandal. A man, acting on his own to investigate the completely false accusations of Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of the basement of a Washington, DC area family pizza restaurant, (if she was so tired and weak from the campaign activities, I wondered how would she find time to run a sex ring??? And oh, by the way, according to CNN, the pizza place has NO basement)  fired an assault rifle in a room crowded with families enjoying their pizzas.

Thus, we have entered a new age, where fake news not only influences people’s opinions about who to vote for, or what to think, but starts chains of actions that have a lethal potential. Of course, there might be those out there who think that it should be a capital offense (benefiting from vigilante action, and needing no criminal proceedings) to eat in a pizza parlor that is owned by someone who donated money to the Democrats. But assuming for now that most Americans have not gone that far, what other lessons might we look for in Pizzagate and it’s origins?

What was surprising to me was the juxta-position of the First Amendment with the right to publish fake news.

But what is the First Amendment FOR EXACTLY? Is it to protect liars and libelers? That was never my impression from my civics classes in school. I thought it was to protect the expression of opinions about how we SHOULD live. Even the Nazis have a right to to assemble and speak and try to convince the rest of the country that we should kill or oppress all those they don’t like. That is protected speech. However, we do have laws against libel and slander, and that is much of what fake news is.

Here is what Scholastic.com says (red is Shona’s highlight)

Freedom of Speech. This freedom entitles American citizens to say what they think, provided they do not intentionally hurt someone else’s reputation by making false accusations. Neither may they make irresponsible statements deliberately harmful to others, such as yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. There are many issues about which Americans disagree, from child-rearing practices to baseball teams to Presidential candidates. Freedom of speech enables people to state their opinions openly to try to convince others to change their minds.

The First Amendment also gives you the right to disagree with what others say without fear of punishment by the government authorities….

Freedom of the Press. This freedom makes it possible for Americans to keep informed about what is going on in government. It helps them to be responsible citizens. Reporters and editors can criticize the government without the risk of punishment, provided they do not deliberately tell lies. Newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as television and movie scripts, do not have to be submitted for government inspection before they are published. This censorship would violate the First Amendment.

Back to Shona’s thoughts now… What I can’t figure out is why the journalism and philosophy professors, the journalist, and the host of the show could not see that the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the individual going about their business as a free citizen. The idea of the First Amendment is not and never was to protect liars whose goal is to interfere with the democratic process, or to intentionally harm law abiding citizens they do not like. In other words, we don’t have the right to help God punish those who we don’t like, for something they did not do.

My understanding of the First Amendment was in line with what Scholastic.com wrote. Now maybe some would consider this a “dumbing down” of the First Amendment. All parents teach their kids not to lie, since they don’t want their kids lying to THEM about household matters. But the God of the Hebrew Bible did not make a commandment against lying. That God knows that lies have a valid purpose in life. The God of the Hebrew Bible prohibited BEARING FALSE WITNESS. This is  a specific TYPE of lying, that would undermine the foundations of a just society. Bearing false witness in a court proceeding before a judge is a crime in American law as well. We call it perjury, and if we bear false witness we can be held in “contempt of court,” since the court proceedings include swearing that the witness will tell the truth.

I understand that becoming a public figure widens the opening for allowed criticism. However, outright lies that harm an individual’s reputation should not be protected “speech,” whether they are a public or private person.

Currently, if someone slanders or libels an individual, the individual is responsible for bringing the legal action against the perpetrator. Maybe this should change. If someone physically or psychologically harms or kills an individual, the STATE (the government) takes the action against the alleged perpetrator. If I am killed, my family members do not have to sue the alleged murderer in order for the murderer to be brought before the justice system. There are problems with this system, as the OJ Simpson trial showed, and the victims’ families did end up having to go to civil court to get some justice… But there will always be times where individual justice fails in the interest of having a “neutral justice system.”

Maybe it is time to rethink the way libel and slander laws operate. When the target is a public figure, a political figure, maybe it is of interest to all of the people to know the truth, and the State (Government) should represent THE PEOPLE in an action against the liars.

I just keep scratching my head about why the two professors and the journalist could not come up with this “angle” on how to slow the tsunami of fake news while protecting the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not there to protect liars. It’s there to protect the ignorant. And we are all ignorant of a lot of things, even if we are experts in others.

NEW LINK: Check out this interesting editorial about how fake news is used by those in search of power.

The Sacred Media: Another new link to some thoughts about freedom of the press, from a fellow writer of Mid-Michigan Word Gatherers.

Another link to how to tell fact from opinion. A well done video.


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Engineering consultant by day, science fiction writer in off hours.

5 thoughts on “Fake News and the First Amendment”

  1. What about “deductions” presented as “truth?” I watched a video last night about a political figure who made deductions and was called on it–the host asked how the political figure knew, and the political figure said, “Because [so-and-so government agency] said so.” However, the agency has been known to be wrong in the past, as the host correctly pointed out. The figure insisted he was right, thereby disparaging a whole group of people of a certain ethnicity. I know there’s no judicial recourse in this instance, but the discourse was disturbing nonetheless. I think a lot of people will unfortunately believe this person despite the lack of proof.

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