Ingrid Jacques

Jacques: Free speech trumps fake news


Love him or hate him, credit President Donald Trump with making full use of his First Amendment rights.

And when he talks (or tweets, as is more often the case), the media universe lies waiting to respond.

This lively back and forth between the president and press has given rise to discussions of fake news.

Heck, “fake news” even made it on several lists for the 2017 word of the year, along with “feminism,” “youthquake” and “complicit.”

Trump has consistently called out the media for its proliferation of fake news. Much of what the president deems fake is coverage he simply doesn’t like. But he’s also correctly called out the media for flat-out getting the story wrong. Just since December, reporters at ABC, CNN and the Washington Post have all seriously blundered in stories related to Trump.

Always the showman, Trump can’t let his attacks on the media go. After all, his base — still very loyal — can’t stand the mainstream media either. He even recently called for a fake news awards ceremony, highlighting the “most dishonest and corrupt” reporting from his first year in office.

I’m a journalist. So all this derogatory talk about the media and fake news is annoying.

But what I find alarming is the growing demand to “do something” about false or misleading news. Such calls should make anyone who cares about free speech bristle. This week, I came across a trend I found unsettling.

It sounds innocuous, but several states have now passed legislation instructing schools they must teach students about “objective” news and how to differentiate between what’s true and false.

If schools want to voluntarily sign on to a growing number of programs that teach media literacy, that’s one thing. In the age of social media (the younger generation is getting most of its information through these networks), raising awareness of how to tell the difference between an established news outlet and some basement blogger is worthwhile.

But the government shouldn’t be involved in telling us what news outlets are OK and which aren’t.

I’m pretty sure that conservative sites like National Review or Fox News wouldn’t pass the test for many teachers.

Washington state, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Mexico have already passed such bills for schools, and Arizona, New York and Hawaii are considering it.

People need to take responsibility for where they get information. That’s always been the case. Everyone just cares more now because of who sits in the Oval Office.

After Trump’s victory, his detractors are desperate to blame something. So they say fake news must have contributed to his election. Whether Russian ads on Facebook or other untrue stories, the left believes these things surely made the difference.

Yet there is a risk in going too hard after any kind of speech, fake or not.

“As far as the First Amendment is concerned, there is no such thing as fake news,” says Robert Sedler, Wayne State University Law School professor and constitutional expert. “Let it all come out. Allow the public to decide whether it’s true or false.”

The strong safeguards in our Constitution for free expression are uniquely American. For instance, French President Emmanuel Macron has said he plans to introduce legislation to stop fake news during election campaigns in his country.

Getting the government involved in the media is hardly unusual in other countries, but it is here.

“We have more protections for free speech than any other democratic country,” Sedler says.

Let’s keep it that way.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques

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