A crowd gathered at Belmont University’s Massey Performing Arts Center Tues. evening to hear an award-winning journalist discuss new media technology and the challenges it poses to the First Amendment.
85-year-old John Seigenthaler, First Amendment advocate and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, was invited as a guest speaker on Oct. 30 to kick off Belmont’s College of Law Speaker Series.
“We were warned that the future was going to be online,” Seigenthaler told the audience as he reflected on the changes that have taken place in journalism over the decades.
Seigenthaler, who was part of the team that launched USA Today 30 years ago, witnessed the shift from print to new media in journalism.
Today, new media has not only changed the medium by which news is reported, but also who reports the news.
“People discovered, ‘I can be my own journalist,’” Seigenthaler said, referring to the effects of the internet.
And with that, the door for both credible, quality content and uncontrolled, inaccurate content swung wide open.
“While new media technology offers a promise, it also has a dark side,” explained Seigenthaler as he began to address the controversy that has arisen concerning the extent to which freedom of speech should be protected in new media.
Seigenthaler first discovered the “dark side” of new media years ago after he was notified that not only did he have a profile on Wikipedia, unbeknownst to him, but also that his profile contained inaccurate information.
The piece, uploaded anonymously, stated that John Seigenthaler had been a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. While Seigenthaler was a close friend of President Kennedy, the information posted was false.
Seigenthaler contacted the head of Wikipedia to have the information removed and, after his request was denied, publicly condemned the company in a USA Today article.
While false statements on his profile were eventually removed, Seigenthaler went on to discover the heart of the challenge posed by new media: outrageous statements are protected.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that information service providers such as Wikipedia, Google, etc. are not liable for content produced on their sites.
Because of this, not only was the false information posted about him protected, but so was the anonymous writer who posted it.
The answer to this problem? According to Seigenthaler, the answer to the problem at hand lies not within the law, but within individuals.
He encouraged the audience to exercise restraint and hold themselves accountable for credible information rather than fighting to impose restrictions on online content.
“Regulation just goes too far,” he argued.
Seigenthaler concluded his talk by stating that online newspapers are culture’s hope for restored credibility.
“If newspapers will make online content as attractive as bloggers, people will visit,” he told the crowd.
After answering a few questions posed by individuals in the crowd, Seigenthaler ended the night by encouraging the audience to “not take their civil liberties for granted.”
- Should regulation be imposed on new media content?
- Freedom at the cost of truth or regulation at the cost of freedom?
- Is there a way to meet in the middle?