NEW YORK — The U.S. government systematically violates the supreme law of the land – the freedom of speech and free press, according to Paul Levinson, Ph.D.
“It strikes me as ironic that the federal government treats the First Amendment with impunity all the time,” Levinson, professor and chair of the communication and media studies department, told a group of professors, media scholars and students during his keynote address, “The Flouting of the First Amendment,” at the Sixth Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association on Thursday, June 23, in Pope Auditorium on Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus.
Last year, according to Levinson, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates television and radio, levied a record $7 million in fines for indecent broadcasts-even though FCC legislation does not define, or even mention, indecency.
Such censorship is in stark contrast to the principles set forth by the Founding Fathers when they drafted the Constitution, Levinson said. Thomas Jefferson called for the press to be protected from regulation so that it could hold the government accountable. As president of the United States, Jefferson believed that a democratic government must safeguard the right of the press to print anything-even falsities.
“This saved the United States,” said Levinson. “It saved freedom of speech and it saved freedom in the world.”
But the “Golden Age of the Press,” as Levinson called it, eventually began to meet serious challenges. When President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he said, many began to doubt the merits of a free press because they believed that anarchists were being encouraged by negative editorials about the president. Nearly two decades later, in 1919, the Supreme Court decided in Scheck v. United States that Congress had not only a right, but an obligation to censor speech or writing that presented a “clear and present danger.”
More recently, according to Levinson, former FCC chairman Michael Powell wanted to free network television broadcasts from most regulations, making the networks more like the less regulated cable model. However, Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl changed those plans.
“Clearly that incident traumatized and galvanized [Powell]; it led him to crack down on indecency,” said Levinson. “And what begins as a seemingly innocent campaign against indecency always segues into political censorship.”
Levinson challenged young media ecologists to return the media to its “golden age.”
“In 2005, we stand at another critical junction in the history of the United States’ freedom of speech and the press,” he said. “Become politically aware and active. Use the media to stand up for political discourse. If we are not careful, we will not ever again have a media environment like we had in the 19th century.”
The Media Ecology Association is dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism and application of media ecology in educational, industrial, political, civic, social, cultural and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information and research among the association’s members and the larger community. This year’s convention held at Fordham from June 22 to 26, explored the biases of media. Speakers included Eric McLuhan, son of Marshall McLuhan; media expert Douglas Rushkoff; and Andrew Postman of the New York Times.