Though their words may be alternately frustrating, verbose or bombastic, the First Amendment rights of speech and the press must be supported — although, remember (wink-wink) even government officials have the right to call out the press in case of inaccuracy or downright lunacy, said Federal Communications Commission commissioner Michael O’Rielly.
O’Rielly said the functioning of these Constitutionally protected rights (in addition to those of religion, freedom of assembly and the right to redress grievances) epitomize what it means to be an American in a speech to the Media Institute on October 24 in Arlington, Va.
“It is worthy of the strongest defenses against any enemy near or far,” he said during the group’s Free Speech America gala.
O’Rielly began by focusing on the freedom of the press, an issue that he said has generated “significant and proper attention” in recent months.
Not only does a fully functioning press provide the general public with information about our government — “an incredibly valuable function that provides a sharp and accurate picture of the government and the activities it carries out on our behalf,” he said — but it serves as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by government officials, he added.
The press serves to scrutinize governmental activities, exposes instances where employees have exceeded their authority and highlighted those who have caused harm to the public by failing to take necessary actions, he said.
“Granted, most federal departments and agencies have inspector generals to examine these abuses, but those entities rarely have the impact of a well-timed expose? by a serious journalist examining corruption or improper behavior, or a live video or picture of a governmental official trying to defend questionable practices,” he said.
“The media provides a vital check on the government on behalf of the American citizenry,” he said.
O’Rielly admitted wryly that it can be difficult to always applaud the press’ record in serving this function. “I have been on the receiving end of some of those stories … and it can be emotionally and professionally trying to defend legitimate actions and decisions,” he said. “Certainly, working in the government is not for the faint of heart, especially in the current environment where certain pejorative words are spewed out so carelessly.”
Despite that, he said, “the value of such efforts by the press are immeasurable, and, even if quantifiable, would far exceed any downsides.”
We in America are fortunate, he said: “These … purposes of the press do not exist worldwide. [T]he world’s jails contain many individuals who were trying to perform these exact functions, but were not protected by a similar First Amendment.”
O’Rielly also touched on free speech as it relates to pirate radio. These stations undermine free speech with their very existence, he said, by interfering with a legal stations’ ability to reach their audiences.
“While I am a firm supporter of removing illegitimate restrictions on broadcasters’ speech, I also believe that individuals who use the public airwaves must play by the rules, meaning that, at the most basic level, they must have an authorization.” O’Rielly shared the well-reported story of a local Colorado publication that advocated that townspeople tune into a local pirate radio station before the FCC shut it down. O’Rielly wrote a letter to the editor to share his concerns about a publication’s romanticizing illegal broadcasts.
Here’s a situation where the government official has the right to free speech as well, he said. The First Amendment does not make those who enjoy its protections immune from criticism, O’Rielly said.
“Merely criticizing a publication for having little discretion and promoting illegal behavior is not an infringement of the First Amendment, even if I am a government official,” he said. “The Colorado publication has a First Amendment right to state what it did … but such protections don’t preclude me from criticizing what I see as a misguided or wrongheaded story.”
The First Amendment should never be viewed as a shield against challenges of facts, style or substance, he said.
“While it protects the right of everyone, especially press officials, to state what they would like to state, it does not protect these same individuals from being called out for their inaccuracy, inappropriateness, or lunacy — depending on the circumstances — even if done so by government officials,” he said.