Editor at Mom is Always Write Media
The Question of Free Speech
Following a city council meeting to discuss defunding the police department, an officer received public criticism on social media for flashing the "OK" hand sign—a known symbol for white supremacy. The officer, who goes by the pseudonym M.R, is now suing the journalists, including public defendant Julie Niesen, who reported using the symbol for libel. This lawsuit reflects the current political landscape where competing claims of free speech clash and powerful institutions like the media and the police receive vitriolically.
Despite limits to free speech, it is the press's responsibility and right to critique matters of public interest. The questionable actions of a public official during a time of great unrest absolutely qualifies.The interesting thing about this case is that it hinges on an understanding of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. The first amendment, otherwise known as the Free Exercise Clause of the Bill of Rights guarantees that government entities cannot make or enforce laws that abridge the freedom of speech or the press (Bill of Rights Institute). Its primacy in the Bill of Rights indicates the importance that it played for the founders of the country, as they had recently won freedom from a tyrannical leader.
However, despite current bemoaning about the wrongs of cancel culture, freedom of speech never guaranteed freedom from consequence or critique of that speech—if a police officer flashes a symbol of white supremacy, a journalist's right to describe and critique that act is constitutionally protected. It is foundational to the cohesive operation of democracy.
What it does protect from, however, is censure. Specifically, the protection described in the first amendment ensures freedom for censure from government entities, groups like the Cincinnati police department. It allows for the production of thought and ideas and public discord. Without this protection of the press's freedom, it would be unlikely for change to occur within powerful government institutions.
There are limits to free speech, and one limitation is libel. The specific grievance lobbied against Nielsen and the other defendants. Libel is defamation written our expressed by any communication in physical form that could damage a person's reputation or make them the subject of public critique and ridicule. However, there are certain cases where claims of libel are harder to achieve. Public figures and public officials must prove that there was actual malice involved in the reporting or a willful disregard for the truth.
Additionally, issues of libel are even murkier when the reporting involves matters of public concern. A public official, a police officer, expressed a known symbol of white supremacy in a public setting. The defendant's critique of the officer was not made in malice or willful disregard of the truth.
Given the increasing attention to police brutality and systemic racism in the United States, this type of critique is not irrational; it is expected. In particular, this is not the officer's—whose name I am choosing to omit throughout—first run-in with racist action. He was previously involved in the killing of an unarmed black man in 2012. Additionally, several spectators reported that the "OK" hand sign was directed at a Black woman in the crowd at the council. The culmination of this evidence makes a claim against him possible. Does this mean he should be openly subjected to threats to his life? No. I sincerely doubt that the journalists wish him bodily harm, or agree with threats to his family and personhood. But that is not the journalists' fault, nor a responsibility they should take into consideration when reporting. Their responsibility is to the public—to inform them of potential inequities occurring in the police department and to further demand change of problematic institutions.
Beyond this, the importance of court cases is never just in their immediate moment. Decisions like the one here serve to set a precedent for other similar cases. A successful trial on the officer's part would signal a change in how our country understands freedom of the press from the courts to the public could have dire consequences.
Critics across the political spectrum want to bemoan the loss of rights in our country, want to protest for their ability to speak freely about urgent matters. Speech is guaranteed constitutionally, and so are the rights of journalists to publish issues of public concern.