Posts Tagged ‘Holly Fisher’


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.

 

Nobody asked me, but… On Alec Baldwin, Carl Kasell and other important SPJ and journalism topics

1) Alec Baldwin needs to take a chill pill, judging by his altercation with a New York Daily News photographer on a public sidewalk outside New York City Hall last week.

In the chatter that followed the incident, Baldwin tried to describe the photographer as a papparazzi, those folks who follow celebrities around snapping pictures of their every move.

But in fact, the photographer in question is a veteran photojournalist who was on assignment that day outside City Hall where Baldwin was picking up a marriage certificate.

As for Baldwin, I think my friend and colleague Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, did a great job of airing out the issues in this open letter to the actor.

2) Eddye Gallagher deserves a tip of the fedora this week. Recently, she agreed to fill a vacancy on our national board and on June 16 the SPJ board appointed her as interim Region 8 Director after Scott Cooper resigned.

I first got to know Eddye when she attended the Scripps Leadership Institute a few years ago. If you talk with folks in our Fort Worth chapter, they describe her as a human dynamo who is responsible for many good things the chapter has accomplished in recent year.

Me, I’m just glad to have Region 8 represented again and to welcome Eddye onto the board.

3) Politics should not trump programming in public television. 

I understand that people should have the ability to have their say about what goes out on the air. That’s why it’s called “public” broadcasting.

But still, it was disturbing to read this report recently about a controversy involving Alabama Public Television.

It’s hard to say with precision what happened, because the station’s former director is not saying much. But this is certainly a situation that deserves a close watch going forward.

4) Who says there are no heroes anymore? I met three of mine in one evening recently while attending our Washington, D.C. Pro Chapter’s Hall of Fame banquet.

-Sander Vanoucur is a journalist I’ve admired all my life, from when he served as one of the panelists in the first Kennedy-Nixon debates through the Watergate era, when he wound up on President Nixon’s enemies list. He’s a bit frail now, but sharp as ever when you talk to him.

-Carl Kasell is a National Public Radio rock star for his role in the popular news  quiz program “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” But I came to admire him for all those years in which he delivered my first of news each day NPR’s top-of-hour newscasts.

-Brian Lamb revolutionized public access broadcasting when he created CSPAN. But for me, I’ve long admired his deadpan and thorough interviewing style. His program, “Booknotes,” served as a template for much of the programming I’ve done with SPJ through the years.

5) Another tip of the fedora to Michael Koretzky, our Region 3 Director, for helping kickstart our SPJ webinar series earlier this month.

Michael put together a great program called “Weird Careers in the Media” which was an updated version of a talk he gave at one of our national conventions a few years ago.

Now as then, the “virtual” room was packed with more than 100 people tuning in from around the country to listen and watch the webcast.

I fielded several emails from attendees who said they found Michael’s talk incredibly useful to their own job hunting strategies.

So stay tuned, we’ll be producing more webinars in the months ahead.

6) Holly Fisher is an excellent interviewer, doing a series of interviews with journalist who won this year’s SDX Awards. Here’s a link to a podcast, a recent conversation with Corinne Reilly about an award-winning story she wrote for the Virginian-Pilot.

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