Guest Editorial: Comedian's win a victory for freedom of speech
In a world of constant social media input, opinions — positive and negative — are not hard to come by. In fact, a critique lurks around nearly every corner in both the real and digital worlds.
Expressing commentary and criticism has become its own genre of media as well, with several TV shows and web series dedicated to commenting on people, politics and world events. Recently one of those shows, HBO's "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" had to deal with some consequences of such criticism in the real world. A segment of an episode last season was comically critical of coal company Murray Energy, taking specific aim at CEO Robert Murray.
Murray has filed several lawsuits over the years against journalists and other members of the media, alleging defamation and potential harm to his company. "Last Week Tonight" was just the most recent among other targets such as The New York Times and The Charleston Gazette-Mail. Last week, a West Virginia judge threw out the lawsuit, recognizing the defense's First Amendment motion to dismiss.
This was a victory for freedom of speech and press — two of the staples of our American democracy. Whether one is an Oliver fan, friend of coal or on any other side doesn't matter. The beauty of our Constitution is it protects our right to express opinions, report facts and publicly agree or disagree.
Oliver's segment was an example of critical and satirical commentary, which used factual and public information as comedic fodder. The definition of defamation is communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person. It is important not to conflate criticism with defamation or lies, and it is happening at an alarming rate.
While Oliver's show is for comedy, a similar trend has happened with news media as well. All too often, politicians and public figures dismiss factual reporting or critical commentary as "fake news," sometimes threatening legal action and pushing "fake news" of their own.
The First Amendment protects their rights to respond and rebut or give context to criticism and allegations. Trying to censor and suppress such information, though, is a violation of free speech and can contribute to the unraveling of the American democracy.
While we may not like to hear criticism about ourselves and those we support, especially on a large scale, it is important to remember that it is vital to our society. We should pay attention and fact-check the media we consume in order to differentiate "fake news" from a standpoint with which we don't agree.
Functions of the media — entertainment and informational — include presenting facts, explanations and holding public officials and agencies accountable. Criticism comes with those functions and while it may sting, it is not a crime. Lawsuits alleging defamation and libel in response to genuine criticism are irresponsible and anti-democratic — no matter who is filing them. We need to keep this in mind as we consume media and express ourselves in person and online. Freedom of speech doesn't go away just because we don't agree or like the outcome.
The Journal of Martinsburg (Virginia), March 3