SPJ and Communication Studies celebrate Free Speech

By Monét Gerald – 

The Tarleton chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Communication Studies department wrapped up the celebration of Free Speech Week with guest speaker Pete Slover. Slover is from the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and presented “Free Speech: It’s More Than Just Talk- the First Amendment Bundle of Rights is Not Just for Journalists.” Slover spoke with students and faculty via Skype about freedom of speech, its relation to freedom of the press, and what threatens free speech and journalism as a profession.

Throughout his presentation, Slover stressed his belief that free speech is of primary importance to the functioning of our democracy and that he wants all people, not just journalists, to test ideas in a public forum. “Democracy is a cauldron of ideas where the strongest ideas survive this boiling pot,” Slover said. “The way to get the best idea is not to withhold ingredients, but to put ingredients in.”

When speaking about free speech and how it is related to freedom of the press he discussed that even though free speech is the first listed of the Amendments, it does not trump all other legal principles like national security and a person’s right to a fair trial.

Slover recalled a moment in his career when he covered the trial of Timothy McVeigh and faced the dilemma of putting out private information to the public media. McVeigh was the man behind the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed 168 people and wounded over 800 more. Slover had gained access to copies of statements McVeigh had given to his defense lawyers. Though McVeigh’s attorneys alleged the documents were illegally obtained, Slover was able to proceed with his story and McVeigh was eventually convicted and executed.

This, Slover said, was an example of free speech and freedom of the press being two independent ideas. The difference, he said, is freedom of the press expressed as the right to access information. Slover stressed that the right to access information is imperative because the press is not simply an observer to the democratic process, but a participant, and should serve as a watchdog function. “It is important to say, without hindrance, things that are popular, things that are unpopular, things that may make people hate you,” Slover said.

With newspapers going out of business at an alarming rate it is fair to have concern about the future of free speech and journalism. Slover said the biggest risk to the vigorous speech and press combination is not the government trying to suppress speech, but the inability of newspapers, television stations and news websites to find a way to make money the way newspapers did in the past: by gathering information and dispersing it. “That in itself is having an impact on free speech and free press,” he said. Slover continued by saying that he sees print going to web only not as death but more as print desperately trying to make it work through the future.

Slover said that his fear is that the speech of journalism and effective, aggressive, smart journaling is going to become a lost language. But in this fear Slover also expressed hope, “Because of free speech being alive and well, issues are being explored and then being talked about.” He said that it is up to the new generation to keep vigilant monitoring and telling in place. Slover also expressed a hope that through Free Speech Week everyone was able to gain a new appreciation of how special we are as a country to have “these elegant institutions” like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

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