Week 9: Freedom of Expression

Week 9 is about one of the fundamentals of media governance: our ability to express ourselves freely. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, and our very own First Amendment, are some of the most well-known governance documents.

But there’s more to FoE, especially in the era of online and social media, than laws, regulations, and guidelines. As our week on ownership showed, much of organizational media governance is governing content — what can be said about a company or not-for-profit, what not.

Most, if not all,  of us also know from the micro-level, personal experience that we may self-censor certain content, create avatars and screen names and secret accounts, to avoid scrutiny of work colleagues, and so on. I have grown careful about my social media use. I’m aware that, say, mixing strong opinions, online activism, and professorship isn’t always the best match.  But the reason for me, personally, is that I feel very uncomfortable with the often aggressive and provocative way of debates happen, online — and feel I don’t want to be faced with fierce opponents, hate speech, and trolls.

And, sometimes inside jokes can’t be translated but cause havoc, as in this tragic-comic case.

The idea of the readings this week is look at FoE from several different  — and global — angles:

Below are short “Issue Briefings” to these themes.

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MACRO & MESO: FoE as a Local-Global Issue

Freedom of expression is one of principles that indeed seem to have universal resonance, at least in theory. At the same time, we have learned from Pippa Norris that many countries tend to restrict cultural flows at least to some extent (Firewall, Taliban models).  This is how the U.S. applies FoE governance in its interactions with other nations:

Freedom of opinion and expression are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United States defends these rights vigorously wherever they are threatened.  Where speech is insulting or offensive, we do not support restrictions but rather condemnation of and argumentation against the speech in question.

In various parts of the world, governments have misused laws that criminalize offensive expression to persecute political opponents and religious minorities, often exacerbating the very problems they seek to address.  The United States, therefore, advocates for other measures to address hateful expression, such as education; interfaith efforts; urging political, religious, and societal leaders to speak out and condemn offensive expression; creating a mechanism to identify areas of tension between communities; training government officials on outreach strategies; and encouraging leaders to discuss causes of discrimination and potential solutions with their communities.

UNESCO, a program of the United Nations that addresses many media-related issues, monitors FoE around the world. Its reports from 2014 and 2015 give a comprehensive picture of FoE: its dimensions and its special challenges in the digital era.

In short: FoE can be understood in terms of:

  • Freedom – and its protections
  • Pluralism – many voices in the media/platforms
  • Independence – from pressures
  • Safety – when exercising the right to FoE.

The digital era highlights, and complicates, several issues related to FoE:

  • Hate speech online
  • Protection of journalists’ sources
  • Role of intermediaries
  • Safety of journalists.

There are, of course, other special circumstances that also highlight the complexities of FoE. For instance, right now  the terrorist attack in London has evoked an avalanche of online hate speech against Muslims.

In terms of the US primaries, some argued that hate speech is going mainstream; others claimed a deliberate media blackout in the US and elsewhere,  especially re: Sanders. Some examine the current administration’s approach to FoE.

How to govern this all?

MICRO: Self-Censorship

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From another perspective, one big obstacle against FoE is self-censorship, or, as some say, chilling effect.

Chilling effect is a term in law and communication that describes a situation where a speech or conduct is suppressed by fear of penalization at the interests of an individual or group. It can affect one’s free speech. Since many attacks rely on libel law, the term libel chill is also often used. The term chilling effect has been in use in the U.S since 1950.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 3.59.38 PMThe fear of penalization can be legal, or social, cultural. This recent study (one of your readings)  serves as an example of what chilling effect may mean. It also discusses the famous, and related, communication theory of the Spiral of Silence that seems to be more true today than ever before.

The article builds a bridge to our next session on surveillance (another complex governance question…).

Your assignment this week: a short quiz (here).

Due Fri 3/31 at midnight.

You need 6 correct answers to pass 🙂 so you can choose 6 questions to answer (or answer more, just in case…).



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