(The following originally appeared in The Seattle Times on Aug. 28 as a guest column.)
The complexities of exercising freedom of the speech are now center stage with attempts to intimidate and silence journalists in Ferguson, Mo., Egypt and Iraq.
By David A. Steinberg
FREEDOM of speech. It’s a deceptively simple phrase. And while governments and local authorities have sought to curb this freedom long before it was enshrined in our Constitution, the complexities of exercising this right are now center stage.
The absurd trial of Al-Jazeera journalists in Egypt and the gruesome beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (ISIS) are perhaps the most obvious attempts to intimidate and silence those who are working to get vital news out to the rest of the world.
But we don’t need to go as far as the Middle East — or restrictive countries like Russia or China — to find instances of the powerful trying to control the voices of the disenfranchised. In a town that could be “Anywhere, USA,” Ferguson, Mo., is serving as a microcosm in the conflict between a government’s need to maintain order and the public’s right to know.
Two reporters were arrested for not leaving a McDonald’s restaurant as quickly as police demanded. A TV crew was hit with tear gas and after it fled, authorities tampered with its equipment. Journalists have been ordered to stop filming police, in clear violation of the First Amendment. In all, about a dozen and a half journalists have been arrested or detained in Ferguson for no other reason than gathering information in a place that law enforcement didn’t want them to be.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Seattle experienced similar instances in the recent past, a glaring example being coverage of the riots at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting.