“Free Speech” on the Internet, and More

Social networking has allowed people to express themselves to either select people or to the public.  Unfortunately, many posters do not exercise restraint, claiming it is their “right.” Freedom of Speech is a highly treasured right granted to Americans. However, it is also the most misunderstood and abused rights granted under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. To quote it directly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But does this give one the complete freedom to say whatever, whenever and however one wants? 

The original purpose of Freedom of Speech was to allow for religious freedom and different political views to be expressed. When the USSR started making some changes, it was jokingly phrased that citizens still had the same long lines to wait in, but were now allowed to complain about them. This is something Americans take for granted. The Constitution also allowed the press to publish verified facts and editorials without recrimination. (The key here is VERIFIED facts. The Watergate scandal was actually exposed to by two reporters, which then led to criminal investigations.) However, that does not give one carte blanche to say whatever one wants. This is evidenced by the existence of cease and desist orders, gag orders, restraining orders, retractions and the like emanating from defamation and harassment cases.

Defamation is defined as “the action of damaging the good reputation of someone”, and encompasses both slander and libel. Slander is SPOKEN defamation or false statements. Libel is “WRITTEN, PRINTED or PICTORIAL representation which unjustly damages an individual’s reputation, OR the act of presenting such a statement to the public.”  Harassment is “disturbing or irritating persistently.” All of these actions may land one in court.

The fastest growing concern in police departments is Cyber-bullying. Perhaps part of the problem is that the parents are really not supervising what their children are doing on. As one Suffolk County Police officer stated, “Would you just drop your kid off at Times Square at 10:00am and go back at 5:00pm to pick them up? Well, what do you think you’re doing when you hand them an I-Pad and never look at what they’re doing?!”  Additionally, there is a marked increase in pedophile crimes due to internet communications.

Some recent evidence of statements being curtailed involves Twitter and Facebook postings. Some are blatant stupidity, as in the March 29th Facebook posting by Colleen Chudney that she did drink but did not get caught by the breathalyzer test by her parole officer. The 22 year old was on probation for a drunk driving offense, and part of her parole was that she refrained from consuming any alcohol. Her parole officer saw the posting and called her. She hung up on him, which is another parole violation. He insisted on a urine test to check for drinking within the previous 80 hours. She was granted another 93 days in jail instead of her parole ending just a few weeks later.

A recent case involved a man who posted a public message about his estranged wife on Facebook. On November 23, Mark Byron posted the hate filled rant.  It sparked great debate on the online circles while the case was pending. Of course most of the commentators ignored the fact that a court order of protection had already been issued to his wife and son after he was convicted of civil domestic violence against her last year. On February 23,. a judge ruled that he had to post a lengthy apology and corrections to his previous inaccuracies on his Facebook page for 30 days or face 60 days in prison and $500 fine.

Musician Courtney Love’s public Twitter posting to reporter Alan Cross about an unnamed attorney who was “bought off” is another recent example. The attorney, Rhonda Holmes, brought a defamation case against Love. Surprisingly, the case was decided in Love’s favor on January 25,. since the attorney was not named, the posting was quickly removed once Love realized she had marked it “public” instead of “private,” and, although the statement was false and injurious to Holmes’s reputation, the case itself restored that reputation. (Each state’s laws have nuances to them.)

However, Love had to pay $430,000 in damages when she was sued in over statements posted on Twitter and Myspace regarding fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir. There is currently another case still pending, brought by Simorangkir against Love, based on accusations of theft on the Howard Stern's radio show and “taunting” on the social media site Pinterest.

The press has also become one of the greatest violators in the past few decades. They do not always verify their facts before reporting a story, and news stories are really editorials rather than reporting. The best example is the man accused of setting off a home-made pipe bomb at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Almost everyone remembers his name, Richard Jewell, because for 10 days the news stations kept flashing his picture and name and basically stating that he did it. Numerous newspapers also made the same claim. They could have chosen to say that this man was a key to the investigation. They also selectively exposed facts about his personal life to present an unsavory character. And even when he was cleared by the police a few weeks later, no one bothered to repeatedly show his picture and state that he was actually a hero. (He was a temporarily employed security guard making little more than minimum wage, yet he risked his life to help others.) And of course, most people cannot name the actual bomber. For the record, it was Eric Rudolf.  He first became a suspect in 1998 and pleaded guilty in after eluding arrest for five years.

As an immediate aftermath of this “Freedom of Speech,” Richard Jewell found that he was unemployable after all of the press coverage. Not only would potential employers rip up his resume and/or job application when they saw his name, but he was cursed at, thrown out of potential employers’ offices and sometimes had things thrown at him.  Even strangers on the streets of Atlanta and other towns bombarded him with verbal and physical abuse (spitting, punching and kicking). He had no choice but to sue those who had maligned him. The NY Post, NBC, and CNN just settled quickly, although they maintained there was no wrongdoing. But Cox network, owners of a string of news stations and publication, took the case to court and dragged it through the appeals court. Sadly on both accounts, the case was dismissed in August, after Richard Jewell’s death because there was no plaintiff. However, law enforcement agencies reevaluated how, when and what information to release to the public to prevent what they now call “The Richard Jewell Syndrome.”

Devices come with instruction manuals and warning labels. Unfortunately speech does not come with this message: WARNING - Engage brain before engaging mouth. People also seem to have lost their common sense and consideration. Why would you discuss your life publically on your social media page – or someone else’s? That is part of the problem with social media – very few think before they post. The other problem is that the postings can be marked either “public” or “private”, but most people do not pay attention to this.  Furthermore, that private post you just sent can in turn be resent and made public by your “friend.” Another interesting point is that even emails that are sent across a public network (otherwise known as the internet) are considered “public” messages, according to copyright law.

So, no, one DOES NOT have the RIGHT to say whatever pops into one’s head – especially on social media, or any other media. And remember, the first four letters of Twitter spell “TWI.T. Act responsibly and don’t be one!