Free Speech Issues Monthly Roundup

The Free Speech Issues monthly roundup is a new initiative launched by AAN’s Free Speech Committee.

A New Hampshire court convicted a
30-year-old activist of felony wiretapping and sentenced him to 90 days in
jail for recording conversations with police officers without their consent
, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the
Press. Adam Mueller ran, a website dedicated to exposing police
abuses, and is pushing to change New Hampshire’s law, which requires all
parties to give consent to a recording. (Curious about your state’s laws? Check
out RCFP’s recording guide.)

Twitter’s decision, per its
partner NBC’s request, to suspend the account of a journalist who criticized
NBC’s Olympics coverage raises questions about Twitter’s commitment to free
. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram has an interesting post on the larger implications of this latest controversy—and whether Twitter should be defined as a publisher or a distributor.

In an interview with Fortune, Mitt Romney pledged to eliminate
funding for PBS
. Free Press CEO Craig
Aaron replied pithily: “It’s disappointing that Mitt Romney continues to use
his public platform to disparage public funding for public media.”

The most-hyped free speech story
of the month was Chick-fil-A, whose CEO, Dan Cathy, publicized his belief in
the “traditional family” unit. Many considered Cathy’s comments an affront to marriage equality. Of course, Cathy was free to say
what he wanted, and customers were free to boycott Chick-fil-A. But then public
officials got involved–most notably, Chicago Alderman Proco Moreno, who
said he’d deny the company a permit in
his ward. According to the Wall Street Journal, Moreno
later “conceded that free-speech
rights trump his authority
on the
issue”–for, as ACLU lawyer Adam Schwartz told the WSJ, “If a
government can silence an anti-gay business, the government can silence a pro-gay business.”
Mark Randazza, who
spoke at the AAN writers conference in Las Vegas last year, has a great op-ed on the subject.

On the heels of the Jonah Lehrer debacle, another scandal hits the journo field with allegations that Time editor-at-large and CNN host Fareed Zakaria plagiarized a paragraph from The New Yorker. It’s not a free-speech issue per se, but The Atlantic national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg’s exploration of the journalistic practice of attribution is an interesting read—as is the piece defending Zakaria, by David Frum of Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Zakaria, who apologized to Jill Lepore for lifting a portion of her TNY essay, recently told the Washington Post that another allegation, by WaPo’s Clyde Prestowitz, is “totally bogus” and that “People are piling on with every grudge or vendetta.”

The Washington Post reports on a court battle over whether “liking” something on Facebook constitutes protected speech. The current case concerns Daniel Ray Carter, a Virginia sheriff’s deputy who Facebook-“liked” his boss’s opponent in an upcoming election and then was fired. A US District Court judge ruled against Carter, stating: “Merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection…In cases where courts have found that constitutional protections extended to Facebook posts, actual statements existed within the record.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh counters: “The judge’s rationale that a like on Facebook is insufficient speech is not right…The First Amendment protects very brief statements as much as very long ones. It even protects symbolic speech, like burning a flag.” The case is now in the 4th Circuit appellate court, where the ACLU and Facebook have filed briefs supporting Carter’s assertion that “liking” constitutes protected speech.

The San Francisco Examiner reports on a California bill that “would ban agencies statewide from cutting off cellphone service without probable cause and a court order,” a response to the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s shutting down cellphone service in an attempt to prevent an expected protest last August. “Open and available communication networks are critical to public safety and a key element of a free and open society,” the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Alex Padilla, told the Examiner.

And, close to my home (and heart!), the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in late July that only the governor—not any of the state agencies within the executive branch—can invoke executive privilege as a reason for denying public-records requests. Read more here.

On July 17, the First Amendment Center released the results of its annual “State of the First Amendment” survey. Some key findings:

  • “About two-thirds of Americans oppose unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions”;

  • 62 percent of those surveyed “said public schools should not be able to punish students for posting offensive content on social media”;

  • “46% said people should be allowed to post copyrighted material without paying rights fees as long as no money is being made, with 42% opposed. However, 64% would not approve of such postings if money was being made, and 59% favor prosecution of those who illegally distribute copyrighted music and movies”;

  • “75% agreed it is important for our democracy that the news media act as an independent ‘watchdog’ over government on behalf of the public; 62% disagreed with the statement, ‘The news media try to report the news without bias.'”

And some quick hits…

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that US consular officials in Central America and Mexico “have been either delaying or denying green cards…to applicants who sport tattoos that are affiliated with street gangs,” but–as with theatrical masks and other images–are also popular with the general public.

  • In late July, WikiLeaks went all Anonymous with an elaborate hoax aimed at New York Times editor Bill Keller, Free Press’ Josh Stearns reports on Storify. I guess that settles the “Is WikiLeaks journalism?” question.

  • The Sunlight Foundation has a new learning portal: Sunlight Academy. “This new online training portal is a collection tutorials for journalists, activists, researchers and students to learn more about how to search government databases and use tools and websites that expose money and influence in politics and amplify publicly available data,” according to a press release.

  • Some cool free speech apps (h/t Tiffany Shackelford):

Alexa Schirtzinger is the editor of the Santa Fe Reporter and a member of AAN’s Free Speech Committee.