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Panelists Look at Threats, Issues Around Free Speech

Experts from the worlds of journalism, public relations, and academia emphasized the importance of talking about First Amendment issues at an Emerson College panel examining free speech in journalism and social media held Thursday, November 29.

“Free Speech: Building Bridges Through Communication,” held in the Bright Family Screening Room, was sponsored by the School of Communication.

Roy Gutterman, director of the Newhouse School’s Tully Center of Free Speech at Syracuse University, said not talking about free speech leads to clashes like the riots that took place this past spring at the University of California, Berkeley, in response to alt-right and far-right speakers invited to speak on campus.

“College campuses are a hotbed of free speech” and are the best places to test and debate ideas, Gutterman said.

While ideological conflict should be expected at universities, this conflict does not happen enough, he said. Gutterman said he believes all speech should be allowed, even if that speech is distasteful.

The panelists tackled how free speech relates to journalism. Carole Simpson, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, former anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, and former Emerson faculty member, said free speech as regards TV news might need revisiting. She said she wonders if free speech as written in the Constitution is obsolete due to the different issues we face today.

Gutterman disagreed, arguing that Supreme Court rulings have modernized free speech for TV news.

The volume of content available online can complicate the truth for many people, Simpson said, so consumers must seek out many sources of news to discern fact from fiction.

Evan White '05, a reporter for FOX 25 News in Boston who covered the Boston Free Speech Rally, said journalists need to include as many voices as possible in reporting a story.

The panelists also discussed the way that journalists can express their opinions. Journalists lose the ability to speak freely because media companies often have stakeholders they are beholden to, Simpson said, adding that she has fought with bosses to include information in her scripts. She said she hopes other journalists will stand their ground too.

One complication of objectivity in the news is social media, as journalists will sometimes express their opinions on Twitter, according to Gutterman. White agreed that this is a problem but said he isn’t sure how the problem could be reeled back.

“The lines are completely blurred, and you’re getting opinions,” White said.

David Gerzof Richard, founder and president of BIGfish PR and Communication Studies senior affiliated faculty member, said there is no true free speech on social media, only what he calls “freemium speech.”

He said access to social media is limited to only those who can afford computers and mobile devices, creating an inherent inequality in the perspectives shared on social media.

Gerzof Richard said the potential rollback of net neutrality—the idea that internet service providers cannot speed up, slow down, or block content—threatens free speech on social media. Companies such as Verizon and Comcast and lobbying groups do not have the interests of the consumer in mind, he said, and their support of the removal of net neutrality would prevent the internet from being used freely and equitably.

Gerzof Richard said he would be concerned about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulating social media. He said people in the FCC did not grow up with the internet and don’t understand the importance of having a free and open internet.

“I wouldn’t trust any politician we have now to regulate this,” he said.