Free Speech or Ethical Restraint ?byKim RescorlaFree Speech or Ethical Restraint?The first amendment to the constitution guarantees the right of free speech and of the press. Unfortunately, some individuals have used this right to protect themselves from litigation when they produce material that is pornographic, hateful or when they use ethically questionable methods when reporting a story. The government has attempted to intervene through passing laws and imposing regulations. The problem with placing restrictions on free speech is that the question of who will decide what is appropriate and what is not will inevitably be raised.
There are two positions when debating this issue : 1) protect free speech even though some people abuse it or 2) freedom of speech does not outweigh the need for ethical principles. Two of the ethical dilemmas facing the media today are the conflicts of freedom of the press versus individual rights, and the right of the press to refuse to reveal their sources. The media has often claimed that the public has a right to know but they do not limit that right to know to a certain area of public concern.
Reporters have written stories on the sexual lives of movie stars claiming public interest but simply because the public is curious does not mean they have a right to know. Certainly, most people would not want their entire life story being printed as public knowledge and subject to ridicule. The issue of privacy was brought to the forefront by the untimely demise of Princess Diana. She was being chased by reporters who had been following her all night when she was involved in the car accident that killed her. Many people then criticized the press who had been following her all night. Does the media have the right to follow and harass people simply on the basis that they are public figures or do public figures deserve to have a private life? The issue of revealing sources has been debated for years, particularly after the Watergate scandal of the seventies. Recently an issue regarding the confidentiality of a source arose but for a different reason. Dan Cohen is sued two newspapers for breach of contract because they promised him confidentiality when he provided them with information. After they had received the information the newspapers decided that the information reflected more on Cohen and proceeded to print the information with Cohen’s name. Cohen won the suit but the damage to his reputation was already done.
Those are only two of the many issues involved in free speech. Ethical restraint would set guidelines for journalists and protect individual rights. The first issue would be to set objective and universal guidelines so that there would be no debate over who sets the ethical code. The problem would be enforcing these guidelines. The Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society of Professional Journalists both have ethical codes, which include respecting those whom you are reporting about and keeping confidentiality. Those ethical standards are not enforced and so some do not follow them. Some people believe in free speech at all costs. Free speech without restraint causes public outcry and violates people’s civil rights like their right to privacy. The difficulty is that people see any form of restraint as censorship and then claim that the government will begin running our lives and making our decisions. If the ethical standards agreed upon were universal they would satisfy everyone and if the journalists would follow them there would be no need for government intervention.
Using the example of Dan Cohen’s issue of confidentiality the ethics of the reporters involved can be analyzed. The act of printing his name, in and of itself, was not wrong. The intention of the journalists was to inform the public since Cohen was associated with a politician who was running for governor and the information Cohen had was on the opposing candidate. The circumstances were the gubernatorial race was in its final days. The reporters had the right to accept and publish the information since it was public record and did not violate the rights of the opposing candidate. They exercised their right to free speech and of the press in that respect. The ethical issue was whether the reporters violated Cohen’s rights when they broke their promise of confidentiality and printed his name with the article. The question then would be should they have printed his name? Following Aristotle’s ethical theory of the golden mean, the journalists were wrong. The extreme one side would have been to print his name while the extreme on the other side would have been not to print anything. A compromise would have been to print the information with the statement that the source was connected and was biased. Aristotle, however, believed in virtue and so did not believe in lying. The reporters were also wrong because they broke their promise to Cohen and so lied to him.
If the first position were accepted and free speech was permitted, unchecked the consequences would be severe. Nothing would stop people from publishing false information or keep pornographers from distributing their material wherever they wish. One person’s right to free speech would infringe on any number of another person’s rights. The press would lose all credibility in the eyes of the public. The reporters who printed Cohen’s name would not be held accountable because few people would believe them anyway. Riots would break out during marches because the opposing view would be allowed to voice their opinion wherever and whenever they chose. Hate groups such as the Klu Klux clan could paper entire cities with propaganda, which could include false information. The press could infringe upon privacy rights to gain their stories and could even invent their own news with no standards to live up to. Eventually, the government would have to intervene.
If the second position were accepted and an ethical code were adopted and enforced the media would gain credibility in the eyes of the public. The standard of material presented would be higher and it would all be true. The reporters from the example would be held accountable because most would agree that lying to an individual in order to get a story is wrong. The people would be responsible for enforcing the ethical restraints and not the government. The society as a whole would be better informed and able to make better decisions.
The principles and values important in this issue are and individual’s right to speak freely, a reporter’s right to inform the public, Rawl’s veil of ignorance in discussing what is fair and Aristotle’s theory of virtues. Position 2 is more convincing because it provides a guideline of what is fair. Position 1 may seem like an extreme but without any restraint at all it is possible. Position 2 attempts to set up objective guidelines which everyone can agree on while Position 1 allows everyone to decide for themselves and that type of subjectivism negates justice, which most people agree, is needed.
The debate over what type of restraint should be placed on the first amendment and who should enforce that restraint if indeed any restraint at all should be allowed has continued for years. No one wants their right to free speech infringed upon and yet no one wants any of their other rights violated either. Journalists have been using the right to free speech and of the press to use questionable methods in gathering information and reporting the news. Without objective and universal ethical standards no one is going to win this argument.
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