The Threat to Free Speech in America

How free is speech in America today? If the case of Wendy Bell, an anchor at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, who was fired on March 30th for writing what some claimed were racist sentiments on her Facebook page is any indication, “not very free” seems to be an accurate assessment. Her case also has implications for freedom of the press.

These are the facts. Ms. Bell, who worked 18 years at WTAE-TV and won multiple awards, posted a Facebook comment on March 21st, several days after an as-yet unsolved multiple murder spree that left six adults and children dead. Bell speculated that the killers were probably young black men from single-parent homes with multiple siblings by different fathers, who had committed crimes before the murders. She also wrote about personally commending a young black man working at a local restaurant, and asked her readers to be kind to others around them.

Nowhere in her post did Bell use the N-word, or make any other derogatory comments about African-Americans.

Never mind. In some people’s minds, a line had been crossed. One of the TV station’s executives justified Bell’s termination thusly: “Wendy’s recent comments on WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.” Another of her former bosses allegedly asserted, “Her post offended us…. It was an egregious lack of judgment.”

Bell’s firing created a local uproar. Some Pittsburghers indicated they would switch to other stations. On the other hand, Bell was castigated by prominent blacks, and her posting generated comments by Al Tompkins, a former reporter who is employed by The Poynter Institute, a journalism school located in St. Petersburg (FL). Tompkins was quoted as saying, “Everything that a public person, including an anchor, says online and on social media is public.” He added, “We all benefit from using this incident to heighten our sensitivity to how others might read what we write.”

(I wonder how Tompkins reacts when Democrat hacks like George Stephanopoulos and Chris Matthews insert partisan bias into supposedly straight news stories?)

As often happens in racially-tinged incidents, WTAE’s management has agreed to collaborate with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation’s leaders on “improving news coverage of communities of color.”

What that might mean for future news content isn’t clear, but it probably does not bode well for freedom of speech (at least on racially-tinged issues).

How free is speech when one has constantly to be worrying about how someone else might interpret (and react to) what he/she says? (If, for example, you say something negative about the history of my beloved St. Louis Browns, and I am able to get you punished for your insensitivity, how free is your speech?)

Sadly, Ms. Bell’s experience is not the only instance in which someone suffered following expressing sentiments alleged to be racist. Recall what happened to Donald Sterling, who was banned from the National Basketball League and forced to sell the LA Clippers in 2014 after his mistress taped his presumably privately uttered racially inflammatory comments, or to Rush Limbaugh, who had to resign from his gig on ESPN’s "Sunday NFL Countdown" after comments about Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb and local sportswriters in 2003.

There are many other such instances, of course, but these two suffice to make the point.

Oddly, America’s sensitivity to racism seems one-sided. Let some white boob say something considered beyond the pale racially, and it’s Katy-bar-the-door. On the other hand, prominent blacks, such as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, and those in the Black-Lives-Matter movement, can rail against whitey, sometimes in the foulest language, and no one should raise an eyebrow.

The disparity between how America reacts to allegedly racially insensitive remarks by whites and by blacks is doubtless due to political correctness, a.k.a. PC, that horrendous witch’s brew of progressive sentiments that America’s ruling class seeks to impose on the country class.

Regardless of what one thinks about Donald Trump, he should be praised for being ready, willing, and able to speak against PC.

If other American politicians and ordinary citizens would also consign PC notions to the dustbin they so richly deserve, freedom of speech and of the press would be in more robust condition.

Race is not the only factor generating calls for limiting free speech in America. On March 31st, thefederalist.com blog posted an essay noting that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, MA), a.k.a. “Fauxahontas,” recently sent a letter to Mary Jo White, chairwoman of the Federal Elections Commission, asking for an investigation of insurance company executives who have criticized new federal regulations of their industry. Warren asked the FEC to stop these execs from “saying whatever they want about Washington policy debates.”

Warren’s assault on the First Amendment is not the only instance of a left-wing Democrat seeking to curtail freedom of speech. In 2013, Senator Diane Feinstein (D, CA), among others, tried to limit the notion of “the press” to just people who are employed by government-approved corporate mainstream media outlets. Feinstein, and those who worked with her on this effort to strip Internet and other media outlets of their First Amendment guarantees, would have had a decidedly chilling effect on press freedoms.

Nor should we allege that cries to crimp free speech come only from über left-wing Democrats like Warren and extremist leftists such as Feinstein.

Donald Trump is alleged to be hostile to freedom of the press. In a speech at Fort Worth (TX) in late February of 2016, Trump was quoted as saying “One of the things I’m going to do… – if I win – is … to open up our libel laws so when they write purposively negative and horrible articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” He added that when “the New York Times and the Washington Post writes [sic] a hit piece, we can sue them. With me, they’re not protected.”

It isn’t clear how Trump would accomplish this given the courts’ interpretation of libel laws and public figures, but since he once tried to sue the author of a book critical of his business practices – which a judge disallowed – one can assume that the Donald takes a dim view of an unfettered free press.

The Supreme Court has enunciated a variety of opinions affecting free speech and freedom of the press. Perhaps two of the best-known Scotus rulings regarding limits on speech entail the equivalent of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, and making extreme comments that constitute a “clear and present danger” to national security. Journalism is not entirely unfettered, either. A reporter, for example, cannot libel even a public figure with “malice aforethought.” Moreover, if Jones is strictly a private person, her/his rights against libel are broader than if she/he is in the public arena.

In short, neither speech nor the press is completely free.

The penultimate paragraph above barely scratches the surface of considerations involving free speech and freedom of the press. These points, and others touching on these subjects, however, remind us of what a case like Wendy Bell’s really means.

How free is speech in America today? If the case of Wendy Bell, an anchor at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, who was fired on March 30th for writing what some claimed were racist sentiments on her Facebook page is any indication, “not very free” seems to be an accurate assessment. Her case also has implications for freedom of the press.

These are the facts. Ms. Bell, who worked 18 years at WTAE-TV and won multiple awards, posted a Facebook comment on March 21st, several days after an as-yet unsolved multiple murder spree that left six adults and children dead. Bell speculated that the killers were probably young black men from single-parent homes with multiple siblings by different fathers, who had committed crimes before the murders. She also wrote about personally commending a young black man working at a local restaurant, and asked her readers to be kind to others around them.

Nowhere in her post did Bell use the N-word, or make any other derogatory comments about African-Americans.

Never mind. In some people’s minds, a line had been crossed. One of the TV station’s executives justified Bell’s termination thusly: “Wendy’s recent comments on WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.” Another of her former bosses allegedly asserted, “Her post offended us…. It was an egregious lack of judgment.”

Bell’s firing created a local uproar. Some Pittsburghers indicated they would switch to other stations. On the other hand, Bell was castigated by prominent blacks, and her posting generated comments by Al Tompkins, a former reporter who is employed by The Poynter Institute, a journalism school located in St. Petersburg (FL). Tompkins was quoted as saying, “Everything that a public person, including an anchor, says online and on social media is public.” He added, “We all benefit from using this incident to heighten our sensitivity to how others might read what we write.”

(I wonder how Tompkins reacts when Democrat hacks like George Stephanopoulos and Chris Matthews insert partisan bias into supposedly straight news stories?)

As often happens in racially-tinged incidents, WTAE’s management has agreed to collaborate with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation’s leaders on “improving news coverage of communities of color.”

What that might mean for future news content isn’t clear, but it probably does not bode well for freedom of speech (at least on racially-tinged issues).

How free is speech when one has constantly to be worrying about how someone else might interpret (and react to) what he/she says? (If, for example, you say something negative about the history of my beloved St. Louis Browns, and I am able to get you punished for your insensitivity, how free is your speech?)

Sadly, Ms. Bell’s experience is not the only instance in which someone suffered following expressing sentiments alleged to be racist. Recall what happened to Donald Sterling, who was banned from the National Basketball League and forced to sell the LA Clippers in 2014 after his mistress taped his presumably privately uttered racially inflammatory comments, or to Rush Limbaugh, who had to resign from his gig on ESPN’s "Sunday NFL Countdown" after comments about Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb and local sportswriters in 2003.

There are many other such instances, of course, but these two suffice to make the point.

Oddly, America’s sensitivity to racism seems one-sided. Let some white boob say something considered beyond the pale racially, and it’s Katy-bar-the-door. On the other hand, prominent blacks, such as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright, and those in the Black-Lives-Matter movement, can rail against whitey, sometimes in the foulest language, and no one should raise an eyebrow.

The disparity between how America reacts to allegedly racially insensitive remarks by whites and by blacks is doubtless due to political correctness, a.k.a. PC, that horrendous witch’s brew of progressive sentiments that America’s ruling class seeks to impose on the country class.

Regardless of what one thinks about Donald Trump, he should be praised for being ready, willing, and able to speak against PC.

If other American politicians and ordinary citizens would also consign PC notions to the dustbin they so richly deserve, freedom of speech and of the press would be in more robust condition.

Race is not the only factor generating calls for limiting free speech in America. On March 31st, thefederalist.com blog posted an essay noting that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D, MA), a.k.a. “Fauxahontas,” recently sent a letter to Mary Jo White, chairwoman of the Federal Elections Commission, asking for an investigation of insurance company executives who have criticized new federal regulations of their industry. Warren asked the FEC to stop these execs from “saying whatever they want about Washington policy debates.”

Warren’s assault on the First Amendment is not the only instance of a left-wing Democrat seeking to curtail freedom of speech. In 2013, Senator Diane Feinstein (D, CA), among others, tried to limit the notion of “the press” to just people who are employed by government-approved corporate mainstream media outlets. Feinstein, and those who worked with her on this effort to strip Internet and other media outlets of their First Amendment guarantees, would have had a decidedly chilling effect on press freedoms.

Nor should we allege that cries to crimp free speech come only from über left-wing Democrats like Warren and extremist leftists such as Feinstein.

Donald Trump is alleged to be hostile to freedom of the press. In a speech at Fort Worth (TX) in late February of 2016, Trump was quoted as saying “One of the things I’m going to do… – if I win – is … to open up our libel laws so when they write purposively negative and horrible articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” He added that when “the New York Times and the Washington Post writes [sic] a hit piece, we can sue them. With me, they’re not protected.”

It isn’t clear how Trump would accomplish this given the courts’ interpretation of libel laws and public figures, but since he once tried to sue the author of a book critical of his business practices – which a judge disallowed – one can assume that the Donald takes a dim view of an unfettered free press.

The Supreme Court has enunciated a variety of opinions affecting free speech and freedom of the press. Perhaps two of the best-known Scotus rulings regarding limits on speech entail the equivalent of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, and making extreme comments that constitute a “clear and present danger” to national security. Journalism is not entirely unfettered, either. A reporter, for example, cannot libel even a public figure with “malice aforethought.” Moreover, if Jones is strictly a private person, her/his rights against libel are broader than if she/he is in the public arena.

In short, neither speech nor the press is completely free.

The penultimate paragraph above barely scratches the surface of considerations involving free speech and freedom of the press. These points, and others touching on these subjects, however, remind us of what a case like Wendy Bell’s really means.