There are many laws and regulations surrounding digital communication that determine the methodology and creation of digital communication. The First Amendment protects communication professionals and should allow them to do their job without the interference or repression from the government or our society's rich and powerful. The government can only prevent the publication of news in extraordinary circumstances, such as if it interferes with national security. A case that exemplifies this ruling is The New York Times v. The United States.
The First Amendment has had an interesting impact on digital communication. Because journalists can't be licensed by the government there is a public mistrust of the media and media news organizations. It is important for journalists to follow all legal laws and regulations and especially important that communications professionals follow a code of ethics to produce and promote media.
Digital communication has completely changed the communication industry. New laws and rulings will continue to alter the course of digital communication and it’s evolution into the future. I have chosen three specific landmark court cases that have had a significant impact on the digital communication industry to share and analyze.
Near v. Minnesota was a significant court case regarding prior restraint that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court over eight years ago. The U.S. Supreme Court continues to cite the holdings in this case as controlling whenever it issues an opinion in any prior restraint case. While this case’s outcome was monumental, it was only decided by a five to four majority. This case demonstrates how extreme actions can be necessary to determine the specific limits of the First Amendment.
Minneapolis at the time of Near v. Minnesota was a politically corrupt and wild city. In 1925 the Minnesota legislature passed a statute that allowed authorities to halt publication of “obscene, lewd and lascivious… or malicious, scandalous, and defamatory newspaper, magazine, or other periodical as a public nuisance,” (Moore and Murray, 2012, p. 156). Any person that is tried and found guilty of such a nuisance could be stopped from further publication. J.M. Near and his co-publisher, Howard Guilford published newspapers accusing local politicians, officials, and police of ignoring racketeering, bootlegging and illegal gambling and also published a series of very anti-Semitic articles.
Floyd Olson, Hennepin’s County Attorney filed a criminal complaint against the paper and its publishers. The Minnesota trial court found J.M. Near and Howard Guilford guilty of creating a public nuisance. The judge ordered that the paper be abated and Near and Guilford banned from publishing anything with malicious, scandalous or defamatory content. One year after that Near and Howard appealed the court’s decision and the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the statute was constitutional under both the state and federal constitutions as a valid exercise of police power of the state and that Near and Gilford were free to publish a newspaper that was in harmony with the public welfare (Moore and Murray, 2012, p. 156). This case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they reversed the order and struck down the statute as unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court quoted Sir William Blackstone in their ruling, “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published” (Moore and Murray, 2012, p. 156). Justice Hughes of the U.S. Supreme court reasoned that the First Amendment ban on prior restraint is not absolutely unlimited, but constitutionally exceptional cases. Until the Near decision the U.S. Supreme Court had not specifically ruled whether First Amendment rights applied to the states.
This case has had and will continue to have an important impact on digital communication practices and law. This case has made the Fourteenth Amendment a federal ruling and taken the allowance of interpretation away from the states. While print media is not controlled by the government, radio and television media are more controlled and exist and function under stricter regulations (Corn-Revere, 2002). Today, while elected officials might wish to be able to control the media, the First Amendment securely grants the news media the right to publish information free from government censorship. The rights of prior restraint have been in place since Near. Minnesota. The few limits placed on free speech are in conjunction with national security and usually only usable when the country is at war. The theory of prior restraint was tested in New York Times Co. v. United States when the newspaper tried to publish the Pentagon Papers, but the U.S. Supreme Court again protected the news media’s right to publish (Lee, 2012). This means that new media organizations have and will continue to be protected by the First Amendment. News media organizations are able to inform the public of the truthful happenings of the U.S. government and governmental organizations. One of the negative issues that comes with the protections of the First Amendment is that people are able to publish untruthful, incorrect, and opinionated articles and publish them as fact. There aren’t legal ramifications for this as these authors are protected by the laws allowing free speech.
Another landmark case with substantial impact on the digital communication field is New York Times v. Sullivan. In 1964 the U.S. Supreme issued a major decision involving commercial “political” speech for the very first time, and it was a landmark libel decision (Moore and Murray, 2012, p. 235). In this case the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that First and 14th Amendment freedoms of speech and press did not apply. The issue was surrounding allegedly libelous information that appeared in a paid, commercial advertisement. This commercial advertisement communicated information, expressed opinion, received grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought financial support on behalf of a movement whose existence and objectives are matters of the highest public interest (Moore and Murray, 2012, p. 236). The Court rationalized their ruling because if they had ruled against the New York Times, the effect would be to discourage newspapers from publishing this type of information, which the court labeled as “editorial advertisements”. The Court was worried that marginalized groups that do not have ready access to the press would suffer and be prevented from sharing their ideas with a wider audience.
This ruling was impactful because political communication has been granted greater First Amendment protection that any other form of speech, even including religious communication. The fact that this advertisement was paid for, begged the question of whether the commercial speech doctrine would apply in this case. It is argued that New York Times v. Sullivan was the first step taken by the U.S. Supreme Court toward eventually dismembering the commercial speech doctrine by the 1980s. This is a massively important case for the field of digital communication as it offers completely new protections for paid advertisements. This allows struggling political groups, religious groups, and minority groups to participate in a public forum.
My third landmark case that has seriously impacted the world of digital communication and media is United States Telecom Association, et al., Petitioners v. Federal Communications Commission and United States of America, Respondents. The federal court ruled that high-speed internet service can be defined as a utility and not a luxury. The decision affirmed the government’s view that broadband is as essential as the phone and power, and it should be made available to all Americans. Cable, telecom, and wireless Internet providers sued to overturn regulations that they said went too far beyond the F.C.C.’s authority and would ultimately hurt their business. Millions of consumers and tech companies rallied in favor of the regulations. This ruling ensures that the Internet will remain open, now and in the future (Kang, 2016).
This ruling is extremely important because it keeps the Internet available to everyone, no matter his or her income or social status. This ruling help ensures equality across America to all citizens in regards to the Internet and media disbursement to all.
When creating content and digital messages for our company it is important to abide by the laws affecting communication and media. Here are five best legal practices to make sure you always follow when producing work for our company to avoid disasterous results.
Always print the truth.
Always conduct thorough and ethical research.
Do not take advantage of the weak and unprotected.
Work to protect the public.
Expose evil and injustice.
Corn-Revere, R. (2002, November 20). The First Amendment and the electronic media. Retrieved 2016, December 10) from http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/internet-first-amendment- overview
Kang, Cecilia. (2016, June 14) Court Backs Rules Treating Internet as Utility, Not Luxury. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/15/technology/net- neutrality-fcc-appeals-court-ruling.html?_r=0.
Lee, D. (2002, September 13). Prior Restraint. Retrieved December 10, 2016, from http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/prior-restraint
Moore, R. L., & Murray, M. D. (2012). Media law and ethics (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.