The Year in Free Speech: 2014
By Roy Gutterman, December 31, 2014
Free speech issues became part of both the national and international dialogue in 2014. From the Michael Brown shooting protests in Ferguson, Missouri, to crackdowns on journalists covering those protests to the murder and imprisonment of journalists around the world, many of the issues usually isolated to those expressing their rights came to the forefront of the general public.
As the nation began examining police practices around the country, it was journalists fueling the story and citizens taking to the streets in protest. In Ferguson, it did not take long before authorities turned on journalists, harassing some, detaining others and chilling the coverage. The press’s vital role in telling the stories’ multiple sides almost got muted.
The year ended with two high-profile cases – the Sony hacking scandal and the Rolling Stone University of Virginia story – which further tested the boundaries of both free speech, the press, free flow of information and the law.
While the full story behind the Rolling Stone story is still unfolding, the case became another example of the value of an independent press as well as the shortfalls.
The Sony hacking scandal began as a computer hacking incident and turned into an international debate on censorship after Sony pulled the controversial film The Interview from theaters.
Sony seemed to have been chilled into self-censorship by some unspecified, vague threats of violence and reprisals for the movie. Sony later changed courses and released the movie in 331 theaters (instead of the 2,000 or 3,000 it initially planned). Sony also made the movie available through a number of online venues, possibly changing the way movies will be distributed in the future. The internet may have both burned and saved Sony. But who could have imagined that Seth Rogen and James Franco would ever become martyrs in a fight over censorship?
There may be some more fallout from the Sony scandal, though, because the company’s lawyer, David Boies, who purports to be a supporter of free speech and free press values, has threatened legal action against media entities who publish materials supplied by the hackers.
Meanwhile, the media continues to publish materials they should not have thanks to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks. Snowden continues to raise questions about government power and the rights of whistleblowers.
And, New York Times reporter James Risen sits on a precipice with his appeals exhausted and the Department of Justice seeking the identity of his confidential sources. The Attorney General has said that he will not seek to imprison Risen, a journalist who was doing his job. But Risen is still waiting to learn his fate.
Free speech is intricately intertwined with free press rights, and under American law, in our First Amendment. Perhaps nobody has exhibited these free press and free speech rights more than journalists covering issues that others do not want covered, specifically in the Middle East and other war zones. As we embark on the New Year, journalists remain in jails around the world, particularly in Egypt and Iran, imprisoned for no other reason than committing journalism.
Even more starkly, this year will be remembered for James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, two journalists who were brutally murdered at the hands of militants in Syria. They were killed because they were American journalists. They wanted to tell the world stories that the world needed to know. And they were killed for it.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 60 journalists were killed around the world and more than 200 were imprisoned in 2014. These stark and dark statistics will haunt 2014, and possibly 2015.
Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor and director of The Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.