The free press faces many challenges in this era of political rhetoric where facts are denounced as fake news and journalists are branded the enemy of the people. Assaults against reporters are increasing. Financially, newspapers struggle while advertising revenue dwindles.
Those issues and others were recently examined by a five-member panel during the Free Speech Forum, a discussion presented in conjunction with the art exhibition Ripped from the Headlines, which showcased an array of social issues. About 80 people attended the event in Fort Lauderdale’s FAT Village.
Speaking on the panel were Jon Garon, J.D., dean of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law; Darius Daughtry, author and executive director of the Art Prevails Project; Karla Kennedy, Ph.D., visiting instructor, Florida International University Department of Journalism and Media; Megan O’Matz, investigative reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the South Florida Sun Sentinel; and Aurelio Moreno, multimedia reporter for the Sun Sentinel and El Sentinel.
Moderator Sally-Ann O’Dowd, a journalist and content producer, opened the two-hour discussion with a look into the origin of the First Amendment.
“Initially, [the First Amendment] was about granting the states the power to regulate rather than the federal government. But as it evolved it focused on the notion of prior restraint. That notion that you had to go to the censors for approval before that content came out was really the core.”
Dean, Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law
Aurelio Moreno, who began his career in Panama, experienced the harm an authoritarian regime can wreak on the media. Reporting under the rule of Manuel Noriega was “risking your life,” he said, noting that police viewed writers as threats to the de facto ruler. Twice in the newsroom the police aimed rifles at Moreno’s head while he typed. Many journalists were jailed.
“They didn’t want people to know (that) the next day they were stealing elections. They were lying to us. There was corruption,” Moreno said. “It’s very sad that somebody has that kind of power to strangle the whole country, the whole democracy. And they started by taking away freedom of speech.”
In Broward County last year, two Sun Sentinel reporters were charged with contempt of court while investigating the school district’s handling of Parkland school shooter Nickolas Cruz, noted Megan O’Matz. Contempt proceedings were eventually dismissed, but not before the judge scolded the paper and threatened to censor stories.
“Reporters could be put in jail for writing what you, the public, want to know about how this child was handled,” O’Matz said.
Garon observes that across the U.S. cases are mounting against journalists.
“There is much more liberty to take advantage of the press than five or 10 years ago,” Garon said. “The fake news ethos has started to empower law enforcement and local governments to push back and challenge the statutory privilege–to use search warrants rather than subpoenas.”
The news industry strives to survive. Many newspapers have closed. Those that remain open are marginally profitable, which limits a media outlet’s ability to fight litigation.
“If you’re threatened with going bankrupt while fighting for your civil rights, that’s not much of a civil right,” Garon said.
Karla Kennedy spoke in support of high school journalism programs and the need to grant student reporters full rights to free speech. Miami-Dade is the only South Florida county that allows its pupils that freedom. In neighboring counties, students and teachers do not share those constitutional rights, she said.
Darius Daughtry recounted his experiences as a teacher in middle and high schools, where he said students “had no voice,” and “it was all about regurgitation.” In response, Daughtry introduced students to the power of words and the idea that their voice matters.
“It’s empowering to be a valuable member of society and have the right to say what matters around you and in the world at large,” he said.
O’Dowd asked the panel how they guard against fake news.
“You have to question so much more because everything can be manipulated,” O’Matz said.
During her career at the Sun Sentinel, O’Matz has witnessed a steady decline in newsroom staffing. “When I started we had close to 400 [on staff]. We are a quarter of that size now,” she said.
“Everyone thinks they read for free online, but it impacts how we cover things. We have so much less ability to cover certain news because we have had to let go very talented people,” O’Matz said. “We appreciate everything you as artists and community members do to support a free press. You are supporting democracy–not Republican or Democrat, but democracy.”