Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’


Stolen Valor Act vs. free speech: A First Amendment victory

A significant victory for the First Amendment drew scant attention last week, lost amid the barrage of well-deserved coverage given to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Health Care Act.

On the same day, the court, in the case U.S. v. Alvarez, struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime for someone to falsely claim to be a recipient of military honors, especially the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This was a case in which SPJ and a number of media organizations filed a friend of the court brief urging the justices to do exactly what they did in the name of protecting free speech.

This may seem like an odd place for us to be, defending the rights of someone accused of being a liar, but as so often happens in First Amendment cases, the people on the cutting edge of the law are not exactly role models.

Such is the case with Xavier Alvarez, a California man prosecuted after he described himself at a public meeting as a retired Marine who had won the Medal of Honor.

“Lying was his habit,” observed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. Kennedy noted that Alvarez also falsely had claimed to be a former Detroit Red Wing hockey player and that he had lied about marrying a starlet from Mexico.

But when he claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient, that’s when Alvarez ran afoul of the law, and that’s where the slippery slope of a free-speech problem began.

There are forms of lying that are not protected by the First Amendment, the court noted. (Read the full opinion and related documents and friend of the court briefs, collected by SCOTUSblog.)

Perjury on a witness stand, for example, is a crime because otherwise it would threaten the integrity of any court proceeding.

And making false statements in a defamation case is not protected under the First Amendment.

But here there was no claim that Alvarez defamed anyone or spoke a falsehood under oath. He was prosecuted simply because he falsely claimed to have a medal.

That kind of content-based definition of speech as a crime was troubling to those of us who saw it as a dangerous precedent. What if the next set of laws criminalized falsehoods about some other topic?

Fortunately, a 6-3 majority of justices also saw the problem at the heart of this law.

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper would endorse governmental authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable,” Kennedy wrote.

“That governmental power has no clear limiting principal,” Kennedy said, conjuring up the image of “The Ministry of Truth,” from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Justice Stephen Breyer also saw another problem in his concurring opinion when he wrote, “the threat of criminal prosecution for making a false statement can  inhibit the speaker from making true statements thereby “chilling” a kind of speech that lies at the First Amendment’s heart.”

Kennedy also pointed out there are remedies to counter such lying that don’t require criminalizing speech.

That’s where SPJ, journalists and other media advocates come in. There are quite a few reporters out there who have exposed the lies of individuals who have fabricated military records and honors.

There are also databases out there that seek to list the true Medal of Honor winners such as this one compiled by The Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Whenever someone describes himself or herself in public as a decorated war hero, it should be a our habit to check out the claim.

That way we’re exercising our First Amendment rights to seek and report the truth while protecting the valor of those who rightfully earned that honor.

SPJ Notes….And speaking of true military heroes, be sure to tune in when you have a moment, to the two most recent podcasts of Studio SPJ. Host Holly Fisher has been interviewing winners of our Sigma Delta Chi Awards, both of whom profiled soldiers.

Here’s the link to a segment she did with Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot, who wrote about an Army medical unit in Afghanistan.

And here is a link to Holly’s interview with Sara Stuteville, who won for a story she did for Pacific Northwest magazine on a marine’s return to Iraq.

On a day when we celebrate our independence, I think it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who fought to protect those freedoms. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

 

Toughing it out: Great journalism in hard times

Note: A version of this post is in the May/June issue of Quill magazine as John Ensslin’s “From the President” column.

We live in difficult times. Not a month goes by without fresh news of colleagues who have either lost their jobs or are left to deal with the harsh reality of a smaller newsroom operating on diminished resources.

It’s distressing to read about copy editors being laid off. As someone who has been saved from many an embarrassing gaffe, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a robust copy desk.

Shedding copy editors is like burning the furniture to stay warm. It’s a desperate option, and in the end, the news outlet gets burnt.

But hard times require hard people, and journalists — especially SPJ members — are a tough, creative and resourceful bunch.

For vivid proof, look no further than the May/June Quill, where we honor the work of this year’s Sigma Delta Chi Award winners from newsrooms large and small.

There are some amazing stories here. Take, for example, Corrine Reilly’s riveting description of an operating room in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan for The Virginian-Pilot.

Or the tough, ground-breaking stories that Sara Ganim and her colleagues at the Patriot-News did on the sex assault allegations against former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — which also won a Pulitzer this year.

Or Matt Lakin’s exposé of an epidemic of pain-killer addiction in East Tennessee for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

All of this work was done against the backdrop of news organizations that are stretched to meet their bottom line. But the work still gets done because reporters, editors, photographers and news directors believed in these stories. They did what had to be done.

We salute them, and I look forward to meeting these fellow journalists when we hold our annual SDX Awards banquet at the National Press Club on Friday, July 20.

If you are near the D.C. area, consider joining us. I know from attending last year’s banquet that it is an inspirational evening and well worth your time and the price of admission. See here for ticket information.

If you can’t be there, stay tuned for a series of “Studio SPJ” programs that will feature interviews with some of the winners on how they got their story. More on these and past programs is here.

Exceptional work like this gives me optimism for the future of journalism. I also found grounds for optimism recently while on a sentimental journey into journalism’s past.

In May, I visited Silverton, an old frontier mining town in southwest Colorado and home to the Silverton Standard & The Miner.

The purpose of my trip was to help dedicate a plaque commemorating the site of the newspaper’s office as one of SPJ’s Historic Sites in Journalism.

The Standard & The Miner became the 94th entry on our list and the second in Colorado, joining the Denver Press Club, which was added in 2008.

This weekly newspaper has been a fixture in Silverton since 1875, when it began telling the stories of this town through good times and bad.

You want to talk about tough times? How about this: The original publisher had to haul the printing press and then rolls of newsprint over a 10,910-foot mountain pass.

The paper has endured through boom and bust cycles as well as an outbreak of Spanish influenza that wiped out 10 percent of the town’s population.

What’s particularly remarkable about the paper’s recent history is what happened in 2009 when the previous owner was set to close the paper. The San Juan Historical Society stepped forward, bought the paper and continues to run it on a non-profit basis.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey summed up the town’s feelings at a May 5 dedication ceremony:

“We’re so excited that everybody got together and kept our newspaper alive,” she told the crowd that had gathered for the event.

I told the crowd that the plaque was not just to commemorate a site where journalism has been practiced. Rather, the honor was for the unbreakable bond that exists between this paper and its community.

The challenges we face today in serving our communities are no less daunting than they were for the owners of the Silverton paper when they had to haul newsprint over a steep mountain pass in the dead of a Colorado winter.

But as they showed then, and as our SDX Award winners show now, it can be done, and it will be done.

We are a tough, resourceful bunch. We will find our way.

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