Free Speech and New Media

Think twice before posting content online, says Fritz Messere, Dean of the School of Communication, Media and the Arts at State University of New York at Oswego.

Hard to believe that five years ago Facebook was just beginning and Twitter is even 4-years-old.

As new technologies increase our ability to reach out and say what’s on our minds, we often think past the basics of how social responsibility should apply to our electronic speech. It’s amazing to read postings where people are called all sorts of unfriendly names, including some that would not be used in polite company.

Are people less concerned with what they post on the web or in a blog; perhaps writing things they would never say face-to-face to another person? Well, it’s good to remember that the web’s anonymity is not an electronic shield for libel action. In 1997, the Supreme Court said that the Internet allows individuals to become town criers, “with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox.”

Some experts argue that the net provides greater freedom than any other forms of media. But should it apply in all situations? The answer is not an easy one. Libel generally requires identification of the person being libeled and the person or persons doing the deed. And, libels that occur on the web can proceed just like any other defamation case.

On a blog it’s often difficult, but not impossible to know the name of the person posting the comment. Look at some facts: In most cases courts have dismissed lawsuits or have refused to make identification of anonymous critics, but there are some exceptions. In 2009, a Cook County (IL) judge ruled that the identity of an anonymous post to a newspaper’s website had to be released to a village trustee who believed she had been libeled. Similar rulings have taken place in North Carolina and elsewhere. In 2006, a Florida court awarded a plaintiff $11.3 million in a defamation lawsuit stemming from a web posting.

So, it is definitely possible to unmask an anonymous posting. However, Maryland’s highest court has probably established the bar for determining whether to unmask an anonymous poster. The court ruled that in order to unmask an unknown blogger, a person would have to establish all the facts for a case of defamation first. (Remember, too, that defamation differs from state to state as it is treated as a civil wrong.)

Probably most of us would argue that for the most egregious cases, the courts should provide victims with some way to right an injustice. But not all criticism is defamation. So, it’s one thing to call a person a fool but it’s quite another to call a person a crook.

A good rule of thumb is to never write something that you might want to take back tomorrow. Things posted on the web may have a long life.

Fritz Messere is the Dean of the School of Communication, Media and the Arts at State University of New York at Oswego. He holds the rank of Professor of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in the department of Communication Studies. Messere is the author of four books on media and media production including Broadcasting, Cable, the Internet and Beyond, (coauthored with Joe Dominick), McGraw-Hill, now in its 6th edition.

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10 comments on “Free Speech and New Media

  1. Great topic, Fritz! I especially like your point that calling someone a fool and a crook are different ideas. I’m interested in issues relating to free speech and the media– with social media adding to the mix. I have a feeling it’s going to keep the discussion interesting in the coming years as more and more people get online and engaged in social media.

    • Often in the heat of the moment, we can say things we don’t mean. That’s one reason why slander is usually less serious than the written word. But in today’s twitter society, many people think that a tweet is the same as saying something. It’s not.

  2. Thanks, Dean Messere, for your sage advice: “Never write something that you might want to take back tomorrow.” I believe your guidance applies to moral and ethical decision making as well as what you write. In my former career as a public relations counselor for senior government officials, I would often ask myself and the leaders I worked for to apply the Washington Post (or The New York Times, etc.) “test” before making an important decision. The conversation might go something like, “How would you feel about the decision you are making today if you read about it in the Washington Post tomorrow morning?”

    Of course, the old morning newspaper test implies that one would have time to conduct at least some damage control before the news hit the streets the next day … and tomorrow’s news would be overtaken by other news after a few days in the news cycle.

    In contrast, today we can apply the Twitter or Facebook “test.” How would any of us (or our leaders) feel about seeing a decision we made or something we said “go viral” on Twitter or Facebook instantaneously … only to be picked up by other media like the Washington Post and reported via online news sites hours before print editions or news broadcasts are published?

    Others need to heed Dean Messere’s advice, especially younger men and women who feel comfortable sharing personal information with friends online. According to a 2008 Kaplan survey, 10% of colleges (many of them top-tier) check the online social network profiles of applicants and weigh what they find in the selection process (http://bit.ly/hIPWYW). Even more employers (45%) check social media profiles of job applicants — and 35% of these employers turned down applicants based on information obtained from these social media profile checks (http://nyti.ms/eRwfzv). And these percentages are rising each year.

    Furthermore, as Dean Messere pointed out, news about our decisions (or words) could last forever. Even if you remove your own Internet postings you could live on in ignominy through postings by others who “like,” “tag,” “retweet,” “blog,” and otherwise perpetuate your news.

    It doesn’t take long to retrieve this news, either. Not so many years ago, as a graduate student at Syracuse University, I recall spending hours in the library bent over a microfiche reader searching through countless rolls of film for news and relevant data from periodicals. Now, the same information can be retrieved in seconds with a simple Google (or LexisNexis) electronic search. It took me only two to three minutes to locate a quote by Dean Messere (then SUNY Oswego’s communication studies department chair) dated May 19, 1989, in the Syracuse Post-Standard (http://bit.ly/huSjhK).

    That story, about honoring a SUNY Oswego student who was killed in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, lives on via the Internet, along with Dean Messere’s thoughtful words.

    Dean Messere is right. Be careful about what you say or decide to do. You will read about it online for a very long time.

    Mark A. Van Dyke, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    Marist College
    @markavandyke

    • Professor Van Dyke
      Thanks for your additional insights. I think the Washington Post test is one that would be useful for most public settings. Of course, anything a public official or public figure says to or in front of a newspaper is fair game.

      What I find interesting is that many people do not treat Facebook as a quasi-public forum. With what seems like ever changing privacy policies, some of us also just make mistakes in thinking some things are private when they’re not. The biology teacher in Cohasset is a prime example (http://www.thebostonchannel.com/r/24670937/detail.html).

      Again, thanks for joining the discussion.

      • Dean Messere,

        You’re right about ground rules that govern interviews or public comments recorded by a journalist. The ground rules for Facebook (or Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) are different … even at times non-existent. I would go so far as to call anything we publish on social media “public” speech. Your reference to “quasi-public” leaves open the possibility that some speech might not be public. Users of social media are often lulled into a false sense of security when they adjust privacy settings to protect some of their posts and information. Privacy is then violated as soon as someone retweets your information, tags you, or shares your information with others. I would urge people to think of anything you put on the Internet or a data network (even text messages or e-mail) as public.

        Sadly, this lack of privacy and the potential to be hacked, phished, spammed or otherwise shocked or embarrassed on social media platforms has frightened many parents and even social media users. Speaking with young students in one of my basic public relations courses a couple of weeks ago, students revealed that many of their parents had urged them to stay off Facebook, Twitter, etc. Citing risk, some of my faculty colleagues and administrators are even reluctant to officially sanction use of social media as an educational or informational tool in our school. This seems contrary to our college’s mission of preparing young men and women to be ethical, enlightened, and productive citizens in 21st century society. In our field of communication, it’s essential that our students graduate with social media knowledge and skills. Employers now expect new hires to have these skills.

        Ironically, one of my students tweeted a quote from one of my recent classroom lectures: “Twitter is like drinking (alcohol). You need to learn how to do it responsibly.” How can we help others overcome fear of social media risks that you so accurately described, learn how to manage social media responsibly, and reap the benefits of new communication tools … and even career opportunities in social media?

        Any suggestions?
        Mark

  3. Fantastic post! I liked your last 2 lines in particular. It’s amazing how many people post things online without thinking of the possible ramifications of their actions in the future.

    As much as we’d all like to remain anonymous online, we should also be aware that it is virtually impossible to be so; all you need is the right people with the right skills.

    Thanks for the interesting read!

    • I often think that some of my best lines (given in a class lecture) are throw away lines and forgotten by the class within a few minutes. But, then I find an email from a former student from 10 or 15 years ago who reminds me that in class I said ….
      Boy, am I surprised! But it happens more than one might imagine.
      Thanks for your comments.

      • Well, clearly you’re making an impact if your students remember words you had spoken to them over 10 years ago.

        I suppose that can be a little frightening too. If you say the wrong thing, it could come back to haunt you! At least it’s harder to prove you said it with the spoken word as opposed to the written word… 😉

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