Freedom of Expression: America v. The World

Fran O’Steen

Unfortunately my paper wouldn’t upload as a document, so here it is! I’ve also linked a really interesting NY Times compilation of cases across the world that deal with press freedom issues… not all of them pertain to my paper, but they’re really interesting reads!

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/f/freedom_of_the_press/index.html

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS: AMERICA VS. THE WORLD

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AROUND THE WORLD

The right to express opinion and share current events is something that is more varied globally than one might expect. While in our own country we are given an immense amount of opportunity to discover and share news – in spite of the subject matter having possible negative repercussions – several other civilizations around the world do not share American ideals for liberty. Places in the Middle East, for example, take great strides to oppress those who make attempts to report on current events happening within the different countries’s borders. From the recent confiscation of newspapers to censor specific political articles in Egypt, to the imprisonment of American journalists in places like Iran, people who are fortunate enough to be citizens of democracies can clearly note to stark contrast between the freedoms we are provides with and the oppression experienced by others across the globe. One topic that is infinitely more difficult to pinpoint, however, is the division of freedoms between different democracies. On the surface, most countries that establish freedom of expression as a human right seem to be one and the same. A deeper look, on the other hand, reveals that although many countries share the basic idea of maintaining a free state, many differ and contrast with American notions of free expression.

AMERICAN FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: A BRIEF HISTORY

Americans tend to pride themselves on the amount of liberty and opportunity our country provides for us, and in many cases we have good reason to do so. One of the first steps the founding fathers took towards setting American standards for freedom apart was to create a Constitution that outlines the fundamental rights that we have as human beings. While the whole of the constitution is important to Americans in different capacities, The First Amendment covers the simple basics that apply to every day life. James Madison made clear the thought process behind the statues of the first amendment, stating that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”. While it includes the specification of free reign in the areas of petition, assembly, religion, and speech, freedom of the press stands out in particular to journalists and media personnel alike.

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At a glance, the concept of freedom of the press as defined by the constitution is that the first amendment “protects rights of people to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without interference, constraint, or prosecution by the government”. Many historical cases since the formation of the Constitution have challenged this core ideal and have brought the original statute to light. The US Supreme Court case of Near v. Minnesota has been considered a milestone occurrence since it took place in 1931. The issue revolved around the exposure of political corruption in the city of Minneapolis.

The_Saturday_Press

The Saturday Press newspaper editors, Jay Near and Howard Guilford, were taken to court by Governor Olson for “malicious” and “scandalous” publications against himself and other officials. His plea for censorship of the paper lead the Supreme Court to declare that censorship, except in very rare cases, is unconstitutional and is an infringement on the liberty of the press. Other major court cases, such as Branzburg v. Hayes which described freedom of the press as “a fundamental personal right”; or New York Times Co. v. Sullivan which protected journalists from libel laws, are only a few of the many cases that have been brought to the attention of the courts over the matter of free expression. These and many other occurrences dealing with the specific constitutional right have occurred throughout our history and are still prevalent today, and can be compared and contrasted with other countries’ set of freedoms around the globe.

AMERICAN FREEDOMS VS. OTHER DEMOCRACIES

As stated earlier in an earlier passage, the line between America and other Western civilizations is not as clearly defined as the one that can be drawn for countries that openly reject ideas of complete freedom. One of the countries that borders our own in the freedom of expression area also borders us geographically- Canada is a nation that embodies democracy, but enforces certain differences. Canada’s historical background sheds light on their constitution, which is said to be drawn in parts from the Magna Carta and is one of the oldest in the world.

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This document that they uphold as an enormous part of their government shares many similarities with our own- they include a “Bill of Rights” of sorts and cover many of the topics that our founding fathers deemed significant enough to include in our own constitution. This fact makes it somewhat difficult to pinpoint the differences between the two views, but certain cases shed light on the distinctions between the two countries’ principles. One of the key differences between American and Canadian freedom of expression is in the way each country treats the exposure and coverage of criminal cases. While Americans have the right to freely publish details and names of the accused, Canadian law has the ability step in and prevent such action from taking place. The protection of those convicted is evident in one of the most recent cases that deals with a former Afghani soldier named Omar Khadr, who is being held in a Canadian prison for killing American soldiers in a war zone many years before his capture. Several reporters who have tried to interview him and take into account his side of the story have been prevented from doing so by the Canadian government. This “rebuff to press freedoms and the publics’ right to know” is a prime example of the way different democracies respond to censorship. In America, names of accused or convicted are part of the public domain, and interviews similar to the one stated above are allowed as protected by the first amendment. In Canada, youth are also protected from being exposed to the media for criminal activity due to the Youth Criminal Justice Act, whereas in America many times those aspects are not kept private. Other differences include the prevention of publishing writing that encourage “hateful statements”, typically in there areas of race, gender, and sexuality. These seemingly small details actually create major differences between the two countries’ views on what is okay to be disseminated and what should be kept from the public.

Another primary democratic country that contrasts with American press is the United Kingdom. According to the New York Times,“Britain has a long tradition of free, inquisitive press, but unlike the United States, Britain has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom.” This standard that is held by the country reflects greatly in the way that they handle certain issues in media and reporting, and the enormous issue that currently embodies this policy revolves around the Edward Snowden/leaked NSA documents case. The Guardian, a prominent newspaper, took the liberty to print several articles that covered the Snowden case, leakage of the documents, and the NSA’s invasion of citizens privacy. The issue involved both American and British governments, whose intelligence agencies overlap frequently. While Congress has taken strides to implement protection against snooping, the British Parliament has approached the issue from a different angle and attacked the Guardian’s recent publications instead. The Times’s coverage of the issue in the UK does an incredible job of depicting the amount of fire British journalists are currently under, as well as detail how truly fragile British press freedom is at this time. Members of British Parliament are currently using their power as officials to heavily scrutinize writers for the Guardian, demand the unveiling of sources, and allow Scotland Yard to pursue the case against the Guardian as a criminal investigation. The stark contrast between the two affected countries reactions- America going after the intelligence agencies who have committed the crime, Britain going after the journalists who uncovered it- is the perfect example of how vastly our two countries differ in the amount of value they place on true freedom of expression.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

Freedom of the press, at a glance, may not seem like something that can truly effect the state of the nation or even the world. Many people tend to look at countries that have democracy and write it of as “good enough” just because they allow MOST things to be reported or published. The small details, however, prove to be the most key when it comes to fundamental freedoms of human beings. The argument could be made that acts such that Canada have that protect the privacy of criminals are more ethical on a certain front, or that punishment for hateful journalism is a positive step towards social harmony, the regulation of any sort of journalism has been proven to do more harm than good. While some topics seem unnecessary and fall under the “just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should” argument, journalists across the country have proposed ethical codes for journalists to keep in mind while reporting. While certain topics seem too crude or inappropriate to share, this does not mean that they aren’t worthy of being available to the people. Government regulation of journalism, though possibly started with ethical intentions, more often that not leads to the prosecution of writers for chronicling “the ugly truth.” Information of all kinds should be accessible and allowed in the public domain, otherwise people across the world have less power over their own lives and decisions. Incidents like the Snowden/Guardian case reveal a side of the world that, although unpleasant, is necessary to be printed in order to push our world forward in a better direction. This fundamental freedom is governed differently from country to country and not one of them does it perfectly. It appears to me, however, that the best approach is that of the United States: to let people speak and write as they wish, so as to give citizens of this country the most power and decision over their own futures as possible.

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10 thoughts on “Freedom of Expression: America v. The World

  1. This was a very well written piece. I liked the format of the article, with graphics and sections, and I enjoyed the topic. It was interesting to learn that perhaps as a country and even on an everyday-basis, we may take advantage of the fact that we do have Freedom of Press.

    After reading this article, it got me thinking about the topic we talked about in class the other day with regards to school shootings. Do you think that other countries, like Canada and the UK would deal with a serious topic like this differently than the US does? I know that the U.S. will usually cover situations like school shootings pretty heavily and a majority of people may see if also through social media. Do you think that other countries may have their government step in and deal with it differently, maybe even implementing censorship with something like this, in order to protect the shooter and/or the victims involved? What about an even more serious case, like 9/11?

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  2. I really enjoyed reading your project, and I especially liked how you compared the countries with democracies vs the ones without. The part where you compare how the UK and the US handled the Snowden situation was very interesting, since the two countries are so similar but acted so differently. Why do you think that is? Do you think the way the UK acted had something to do with the culture, or just strictly because of their government?

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  3. It was interesting to read about how the different democracies react to the idea of free press. The countries are similar in so many aspects, but differ on this topic specifically. Do you think that citizens of other countries may believe that America has too much freedom of press? In the US ethical codes have been written but in the long run, because of the freedom given to us, it is not mandatory to follow them. The statement”just because you can say it, doesn’t mean you should” stood out to me. I very much agree with this idea. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and has a right to make it known, however the way some people go about doing this is unnescesarily brutal. I believe that if these ethical codes were more heavily enforced there would be some progress in the way people are spoken about in the media.

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    1. I completely agree! While the First Amendment is so crucial in protecting our rights as citizens and as people, I think that journalists should really take into account that quote when covering controversial subjects.

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  4. While I agree that the First Amendment is fantastic and the US is great and all, “freedom of speech, and of the press” is often interpreted loosely, and today’s digital media is changing the game completely. Let’s face it, the Bill of Rights is old. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that journalism is a constantly-evolving field, and we as a country need to evolve along with it, not rely on dated documents and codes. The US may have the “best approach,” but we still have a long way to go.

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  5. Fran, great job on your project! An interesting point that caught my attention was how Canada handles criminal offenses by minors. Though you mentioned that all information should be accessible in the public domain, how do you think criminal records for minors affects their job prospects, etc. as an adult? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that mistakes made as a teenager that result in a criminal record could negatively impact an individual for many years, sometimes undeservingly. What are your thoughts on a selective public record system based on the severity of the offense? What do you think would be the public reaction if the United States implemented a similar system?

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    1. Thanks for your comment Katie! In response to your question, I do think that discretion in that area would be a good idea. I know of several kids who made mistakes a teenagers and worked past them, but those mistakes still follow them constantly- both in their careers and in their reputations.

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  6. You mentioned that people should be allowed to say and write whatever they want. Is your view limited to factually correct information? How do you feel about the consequences for slander and libel? Even if it did hurt one’s reputation is it still considered the other’s right to say whatever they want?

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  7. I’ve always wondered how much freedom people in other democratic countries actually had compared to the U.S. and your article pretty much summed it up for me. It was very well written and the comparisons of the countries got the point across really well.

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  8. I knew that there were a few cases in the Supreme Court that challenged and tested the First Amendment, but I didn’t know of the ones that you sited. I’m glad I now know! Thanks for educating me about this. You speak about the lack of complete freedom of expression within other countries. Is it your personal opinion that America should step in using force to implement a true free expression in the media of other countries? Also, if negative effects of free speech (e.g. destroyed reputation, war, violence) are at risk, should media deserve to be censored for the greater good? I also wonder if aspiring journalists in other countries come to the USA because of our freedom of expression in the media that is unmatched by many other countries.

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