Bearing Drift Asks a Free-Speech Advocate About #FakeNews

Free-speech advocates look forward each year to the awarding of the Jefferson Muzzles by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville. This year marks the silver anniversary of the Muzzles and they will be announced in mid-April. (The announcement usually comes on or near Mr. Jefferson’s birthday, April 13.)

Joshua Wheeler free speech Virginia Festival of the Book Charlottesville Thomas JeffersonThis past weekend I had an opportunity to speak with Joshua Wheeler, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center, who had just moderated a panel discussion about words and language at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He gave me a preview of the 2017 Muzzles but few hints about the actual winners.

“As every year,” Wheeler said, “you’ll see a variety of different kinds of censorship but you’ll also see that free speech or censorship, if you want to put it that way, is a non-partisan issue. It comes from the left as well as the right. No political point of view has a lock on it.”

He cautioned that “we need to remember that the First Amendment doesn’t check censorship in all its forms. The First Amendment is a check on government censorship, and so whoever happens to be in the government at the time, they’re probably going to be getting the bulk of the Muzzles.”

Fake News?
I also asked Wheeler about the proliferation of the term “fake news,” especially since last year’s presidential election campaign. What comes to mind when he hears somebody say “fake news”?

“What comes to mind for me is satire, but that’s not how it’s being used,” he replied. “The way in which it’s being used by our current administration, which seems to have really coined the phrase, is claiming that news that they don’t like is ‘fake news.’”

That’s not the right way to use the term, he said.

“I believe they have every right to find fault with journalism that they disagree with, that they think is not being correct, but,” he averred, “to call it fake news is very disturbing to me because it’s an attack on the institution of the press more than just any particular news outlet.”

One form of “fake news,” I suggested, was the sort of phony news story created by Macedonian bloggers working in dank basements and then spread willy-nilly through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. How, I asked, can social media protect itself against this kind of phenomenon?

“That’s a very good question,” said Wheeler. “I’m not exactly sure.”

Pausing, he added that the key is “us as individuals to read a variety of sources and only through that, I think, will we be able to get a filter of what actually is the truth and what is some sort of outlandish, demonstrably false information.”

As for the criteria we can use to judge good sources from bad ones, Wheeler said that “one of the things I’ve learned in the last few years is [that] news can have a bias or a leaning one way or the other. There is a subjective element to the news.”

Given that, he said, “I think what we want to look for, though, is news reporters and news outlets that don’t deliberately do that, that they are presenting what they see as the truth and we, again, as the public need to recognize that they are acting as a filter to us and there’s always going to be a certain amount of interpretation.”

The best way to judge good-vs-bad, he added, is not just to “read or hear or listen to those news outlets that we know we’re going to agree with, but to challenge yourself and listen to some of those media outlets that present a different point of view.”

The reason to listen to different points of view, he explained, is that “sometimes by doing that you can recognize when they’re reporting the same facts but they might be reporting a slightly different interpretation of them and then we are left free to make our own interpretation.”

Wheeler said he believes “strongly in the phrase that ‘you’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.’ What seems to concern me today is that so many people are relying on [or] are putting forth statements [or] are claiming facts when, in fact, there’s no real evidence to prove that.”

(In other words, “alternative facts.”)

Free-speech litigation
Finally, I asked Wheeler whether there are any current legal cases involving free speech or free expression that deserve our attention. He mentioned one, in particular, Elonis v. United States, which has been sent back to a lower court from the U.S. Supreme Court for further review. A second case, pending before the Pennsylvania supreme court, Knox v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, also brings up some interesting issues.

“It’s not at the Supreme Court yet,” he said, but “it’s an issue we’re going to a see more and more of, involving both Internet speech and the question ‘what constitutes a “true threat.” ’”

True threats, he explained, “are one of those areas, categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment. The whole question” before the courts, he said, is “what constitutes a ‘true threat.’”

The problem is, he noted, that “when it’s on the internet, it’s particularly difficult” to determine whether a threat is genuine (“true”) or not because a true threat “has to be communicated to a particular person.”

The confusion arises when a statement is “not intended to be communicated towards a particular person but that person feels threatened by the statement.” In that case, the question is whether the threat is defined by the intent of the speaker or by the perception of the person who feels threatened.

The questions before the court will be: “Does the speaker have to intend to make you feel threatened? Or is it just enough that the listener, the person who hears it, is reasonable in feeling threatened by it?”

The answers to those questions are the “critical issue that the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on. They’ve had a couple of chances and both times they’ve sort of punted on that issue but it’s going to come up and it’s coming up in this case in Pennsylvania right now.”

Words, words, words
For the entertainment of Bearing Drift readers, here is the panel discussion led by Joshua Wheeler for the 2017 Virginia Festival of the Book. As recorded in the Charlottesville City Council chambers, two wordsmiths, Allan Metcalf (From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations) and Robert Rubin (Going to Hell in a Hen Basket: An Illustrated Dictionary of Modern Malapropisms), discussed the steady addition of new words to the English language, and the equally steady new ways we find to misuse them.(Audience members had the opportunity to vote in the American Dialect Society’s annual Word of the Year contest, and to suggest favorite malapropisms.) The panel was called “Word Salad or Word Solid? Malapropisms and New Coinages.”