Editor’s note: This is a guest column submitted on behalf of the Champaign County Bar Association on the occasion of National Law Day, May 1, 2019.
The American Bar Association announced the theme of Law Day for 2019 as “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” I volunteered to write a column on behalf of the Champaign County Bar Association as an opportunity to reflect on the rule of law in free society, and how changes in technology have reshaped the concepts of free speech and free press.
I spent a decade as a local journalist before I went to law school. In those 10 years, I participated with the Associated Press and the Ohio Coalition for Open Government in statewide public records audits. My colleagues and I reported on issues that led to the judicial removal of three elected officials in Madison County for misfeasance, malfeasance and nonfeasance, including their practice of deliberating in non-public meetings.
I welcomed the changes to the Ohio Revised Code which required public officials to complete training on Sunshine Laws. Even though a controversial issue would draw a crowd on occasion, I noticed regular attendance from “concerned citizens” at most public meetings declined as did newspaper readership. Unwilling to transition to video or (at the time) 140-character snippets of copy on Twitter, I left journalism for the law.
Fast forward nine years, and it pains me to acknowledge that social media monopolies use inscrutable algorithms to determine what’s newsworthy. Those who decry mainstream media outlets and Facebook as propagators of “fake news” have not offered an alternative, even after Silicon Valley executives testified before Congress and admitted they play politics with users.
The Constitution only restricts government from abridging free speech rights. When private social media services pick which press outlets are seen by the public, while at the same time blocking or banning speech by individual users for violating opaque “content standards” without explanation (or even the President of the United States), we all suffer. Government regulation won’t change that anytime soon, but public pressure might.
So, here’s what I suggest: take a break from social media for an hour. Use that time to sit in on a public meeting, just because it’s your right to attend. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about what you observed. Write your local legislator. Take the time to be engaged and exercise your free speech rights, so the free press can continue to exist in a free society.
Breanne Parcels is a former Urbana Daily Citizen reporter and an associate attorney with Gorman Veskauf Henson & Wineberg in Springfield. The views expressed in this column are her own.