United States: Free expression constrained by cultural and political factors

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US media freedom fraying at the edges

Read our May 2017 review of threats to press freedom in the United States.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_empty_space height=”20px”][vc_column_text]

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Freedom of expression is generally protected in the US, but political, legal, economic and cultural factors continue to constrain this fundamental right. The First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits laws that abridge free speech, academic freedoms and the right to assemble are generally protected, and violence against journalists is rare.

National security is used excessively to justify free speech and privacy restrictions.

Revelations over the National Security Agency’s “Prism” programme, which it is claimed gives the US government powers of mass surveillance over web communications, have caused huge concern over the authorities’ attitudes to free speech and privacy.

Government transparency and accountability are also key concerns. The 1966 Freedom of Information Act and various state laws are meant to shine light on classified government documents, but many agencies do not comply with these laws or do so significantly later than mandated and with heavily redacted information. The aggressive prosecution and sentencing of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning and the pursuit of Edward Snowden highlights the Obama administration’s attitude to whistleblowers.

Beyond security and secrecy, some of the greatest challenges to freedom of expression are linked to rapid shifts in technology and online behaviour so that is for digital section. Money is also key. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case in 2010 extended first amendment rights to corporations and unions, threatening the free speech rights of individuals by diminishing the power of their voices to compete with billion-dollar industries. Although US libel laws generally protect the public interest — public figures must prove actual malice rather than mere negligence to win a suit — “Strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs) sometimes silence criticism, as libel actions in the US remain expensive.

Despite these concerns, the state of free expression in the US is generally healthy.

Media Freedom

The US enjoys a free and diverse press, although aggressive political partisanship, the consolidation of media ownership and other financial troubles have threatened this freedom as traditional institutions struggle to stay afloat and adapt to an increasingly digital media landscape. Local and national newsrooms have shrunk, and reporters are overstretched , diminishing the quality of American journalism.

Laws against obscenity, indecency and profanity set out and enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restrict what content can appear on free-to-air broadcasting.

Most states have shield laws that protect journalists from revealing their sources, and the Obama administration is proposing a federal shield law, But the government’s prosecution of whistleblowers has raised real concern. The accessing of Associated Press reporters’ phone records in pursuit of leaks has also been a source of alarm.

The Obama administration has been criticised for its aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers and journalists and demands for source information in cases of government secrecy. While the president did sign a Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act into law in late 2012, the behaviour of the authorities when confronted with leaks has been heavy handed.

Meanwhile, physical attacks by police against journalists and bloggers covering the Occupy movements hurt the US’ ranking in several press freedom indices in 2012.

Digital Freedom

About 75 percent of the population is online, but affordable high-speed broadband remains elusive. Copyright legislation and surveillance currently represent some of the greatest threats to digital freedom of expression.

The latest Google Transparency report shows that the US requests more user data than any other country and issues the second most court orders for content removal behind Brazil. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) criminalises the circumvention of copyright controls online without regard for how users intend to use the tools. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) were shelved in 2012 following highly publicised website blackout campaigns by internet activists and web companies, but intellectual property rights remain a concern with secret negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on-going. Efforts are also underway to reform the 1986 Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (ECPA), which allows the government to access private emails older than 180 days without warrant.

PATRIOT Act provisions and the fact that US telecommunications companies comply with millions of government requests for user data have given Americans cause to self censor their electronic communications. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)[1], which passed through the House of Representatives twice but stalled in the Senate, would have compounded the threat of self censorship by granting companies greater immunity to share private user data with secretive government agencies. In June, it was revealed that the government has been secretly collecting the call records of Verizon customers under the PATRIOT Act and that the National Security Agency can access the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and others to monitor users’ video calls, search histories, live chats, and emails. Concern is also growing over how domestic drones used for surveillance will affect individuals’ privacy] and how American web companies are in a sense privatising censorship through terms of service that restrict freedom of expression.

Artistic Freedom

The First Amendment protects artistic freedom in the US, but fear of offence still motivates censorship and self-censorship. Nudity, pornography, obscenity and religious sensitivity are among the most common reasons visual art is censored from public space in the US. Censorship typically occurs at the gallery level where art is removed in response to controversy rather than through legal mandate. Donor funding can also dictate the type and content of art displayed. A US university removed a controversial climate change sculpture without warning in May 2012 when it upset a major donor from the energy industry. High sensitivity to political correctness and concerns about marketability sometimes lead artists to self-censor what they produce, and donor funding often dictates the type and content of art that is displayed. A growing trend of online crowdsourced funding for the arts is helping to overcome this barrier for specific projects.

Controversial books are still removed from or kept out of local public libraries across the country — in March 2013, for example, the Chicago public schools authority demanded the graphic novel Persepolis be removed from its classrooms — and music is regularly stripped of violent references  and profanity at stores and on radio due to private decisions or Federal Communications Commission mandates.

Increasingly strict copyright laws keep much art out of the public domain despite relatively liberal fair use provisions. Due to copyright extensions, which now extend to 70 years after the creator’s death, many creative works originally due to enter the public domain this year will not do so until 2052.

This article was originally published on 22 Aug, 2013 at indexoncensorship.org[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Join the Index mailing list and get an exclusive gift” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]

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Manning Wikileaks trial begins today

The trial of Bradley Manning, the US Army private who leaked thousands of documents to Wikileaks, is set to begin today at the Fort Meade military base, Maryland.

210px-Bradley_Manning_US_ArmyManning faces 22 counts, including aiding al-Qaida, in violation of Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Manning maintains that he gave the documents to Wikileaks in an attempt to spark a debate about the Iraq war. He has pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges against him, but not the most serious.

If found guilty of the more serious charges, Manning faces 154 years in jail, according to the BBC. The trial is expected to last three months.


Manning Trial Instructions
The Guardian: Bradley Manning WikiLeaks trial ‘dangerous’ for civil liberties – experts

INDEX Q&A: It’s not easy being Green for US third party candidate

Nov 5, 2012 (Index) The United States two-party system leaves little room for third party candidates in the presidential race. Green Party nominee Jill Stein has faced numerous obstacles throughout her run — including being arrested outside of one of the presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

Index’s Sara Yasin spoke to the candidate about free speech in America, and the challenges she’s faced as a third party candidate in the Presidential race

Index: What are the biggest barriers faced by alternative candidates in the Presidential race?

Jill Stein: Its almost as if third parties have been outlawed. There is not a specific law, but they have just made it incredibly difficult and complicated to get on the ballot, to be heard, it is as if [third parties] have been virtually outlawed.

To start with we don’t have ballot status, the big parties are “grandfathered” in. Other parties have to collect anywhere from ten to twenty to thirty to forty times as many signatures to get on the ballot. We spend 80 per cent of the campaign jumping through hoops in order to get on the ballot. It really makes it almost impossible to run.

It takes money in this country. You have to buy your way onto TV. The press will not cover third parties, challengers, alternatives. The press is consolidated into the hands of a few corporate media conglomerates, and they’re not interested and they also don’t have the time because their staff has been cut. So they’re basically, you know, covering the horse race. Not looking at new voices, new choices, the kinds of things that the American public is really clamouring for, and also not looking not the issues. And so you get this really dumbed down coverage that excludes third party candidates.

And then you have the debates, which are a mockery of democracy. Which are really sham debates held and organised by the Commission on the Presidential Debates, which is a private corporation led by Democratic and Republican parties. They sound like a public interest organisation; they’re not. They’re simply a front group to censor the debate. And to fool the American voter into thinking that is the only choice that Americans have. And in fact, by locking out third party candidates, we’ve effectively locked out voters.

According to a study in USA Today a couple weeks ago, roughly one out of every two eligible voters was predicted to be staying home in this election. That is an incredible indictment of the candidates.

Index: What are your thoughts on how multinational companies are using lobbying, lawsuits and advertisements to chill free speech around environmental issues?

This is certainly being challenged. Fossil fuels are an example. The fossil fuel industry has bought itself scientists — pseudo scientists I must say — and think tanks to churn out climate denial. That whole area of climate denial has been sufficiently disproven now, to the point where they don’t rear their ugly head anymore. Now there’s just climate silence, which Obama and Romney really share. Romney is not denying the reality of climate change, he’s just not acting on it. Unfortunately, Obama has seized that agenda as well in competing for money.

I think we are seeing enormous pushback against this, in the climate movement, in the healthy food movement, in the effort to pass the referendum in California (37) that would require the labeling of food which the GMO industry is deathly afraid of, because people are rightly skeptical. So for them, free speech, informed consumers, informed voters, are anthema, it’s deadly for them. They require the supression of democracy and the suppression of free speech. And the buying of the political parties is all about silencing voices like our campaign. which stands up on all of these issues.

There are huge social movements on the ground now for sustainable, healthy organic agriculture. For really concerted climate action, for green energy, for public transportation. These are thriving movements right now. Our campaign represents the political voice of those movements. There is also a strong movement now to amend the constitution to stop these abuses, to stop this suppression of free speech.

Index: Do you think that the two-party system allows for topics viewed as inconvenient to both Republicans and Democrats to remain untouched?

JS: That’s their agreement really. And the commission on presidential debates makes it so very clear. They have a written agreement that was leaked a couple of weeks ago. That agreement includes very carefully selected moderators who agree about what kinds of questions they will ask and they will go through…until they find the candidate for a moderator that will agree basically not to rock the boat. The moderators have to agree to not only exclude third parties, but not to participate in any other format with candidates whose issues can’t be controlled. This has everything to do with why they make the agreements that they do and why they will only talk to each other, because they’re both bought and paid for by the same industries responsible for the parties.

When I got arrested protesting the censorship of the debate, my running mate and I were both tightly handcuffed with these painful plastic restraints, and taken to a secret, dark site. Run by some combination of secret service, and police, and homeland security. Who knows who it really belongs to, but it was supposed to be top secret and no one was supposed to know and we were then handcuffed to metal chairs and sat there for almost eight hours. And there were sixteen cops watching the two of us, and we were in a facility decked out for 100 people to be arrested, but it was only the two of us and one other person brought in towards the end of the evening who was actually a Bradley Manning supporter who had been arrested just for taking photographs of someone who was photographing the protesters.

Index: What does freedom of expression mean to you?

JS: It means having a democracy, having a political system that actually allows the voices of everyday people to be heard. Not just, you know, the economic elite which has bought out our establishment political parties. So free expression, for me, is the life blood of a political system. I was not a political animal until rather late in life. I was shocked to learn we don’t have a political system based on free expression. We have a political system based on campaign contributions and the biggest spender, and they buy out the policies that they want, so to me, that is where free expression goes. And if we don’t have it we don’t have politics based on free expression —- it’s not just our health that is being thrown under the bus, it’s our economy, it is our climate, it is our environment. We don’t have a future if we don’t have free expression. If we don’t get our first amendment and free speech back, and that means liberating it from money.

Sara Yasin is an editorial assistant at Index on Censorship. She tweets at @missyasin

Julian Assange granted political asylum in Ecuador

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been granted political asylum in Ecuador. The Australian national, who has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for two months after breaching his bail conditions in the UK, is wanted in Sweden, where allegations of sexual assault have been made against him. The Ecuadorian  foreign ministry said it was not confident that Assange would not be extradited to the United States should he return to Sweden. Assange has been heavily criticised in the US for publishing secret diplomatic cables, but as yet no charge has been brought against him.

Private Bradley Manning, alleged to be the source of the cable leak, has been in the US since July 2010, where he faces several charges including “aiding the enemy”.

Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has previously appeared as a guest on Julian Assange’s Russia Today interview programme. The South American country has faced criticism for its record on free speech.

UPDATE: The British Foreign Office has released this statement

We are disappointed by the statement from Ecuador’s Foreign Minister that Ecuador has offered political asylum to Julian Assange.

Under our law, with Mr Assange having exhausted all options of appeal, the British authorities are under a binding obligation to extradite him to Sweden. We shall carry out that obligation. The Ecuadorian Government’s decision this afternoon does not change that.

We remain committed to a negotiated solution that allows us to carry out our obligations under the Extradition Act.