American law is so pre-occupied with the freedoms of speech and expression, it could be argued that it puts the rights of the individual ahead of the good of society.
Although that notion of individual rights may sound strange, Arthur S. Hayes, associate professor of mass media and journalism, told eight foreign journalists it is also the key to promoting the flow of information vital to the survival of the republic.
“The press law is based on the American Revolution, in that the printing press and people who owned newspapers in the 1770s and 1780s played a major role in disseminating information about the revolution and galvanizing people to revolt against the British,” Hayes said in a wide-ranging and free-wheeling two-hour workshop on Thursday, Oct. 9, in the Special Collections Room of the William D. Walsh Family Library.
“Consequently, when our Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, we had this press clause,” he continued.
Hayes’ workshop on mass media law in the United States was the third of eight for eight international journalists, who were visiting the country as part of the United Nations’ Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalists Fellowship Program.
The fellowship was well established before taking its name from Al-Farra, a U.N. public information employee who was killed in an attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. It has invited radio, print and television reporters from around the world to live and work in New York for the past 28 years.
This year’s crop of journalists covered the United Nations’ General Assembly, visited media organizations and spent two days with members of Fordham’s communications and media studies department.
Among the countries represented were Gabon, Somalia and Turkey. Their cultural differences from the United States became especially apparent when Hayes, a former associate editor of the National Law Journal who holds a master’s degree in communication from Fordham and a law degree from Quinnipiac University, explained the legal decisions that have shaped American free speech.
He also explained why printed and politically tinged speech has more protections under the law than film, radio and television.
When the conversation turned to obscenity and hate speech, several of the journalists questioned whether the high level of hate speech that the United States allows would benefit their own countries.
“Wouldn’t you say that the press is so free here that it can create divisions among people?” asked Jacqueline Bryan, a radio reporter from Saint Kitts and Nevis.
“Yes, and that’s good,” Hayes replied. “If we believe that the people are sovereign and intelligent, and that people are capable of making decisions on their own, then why should we fear that the press is supposedly making things divisive?”