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May 31 2013

14:08

This Week in Review: Debating journalists’ role in DOJ seizures, and Facebook tackles hate speech

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Blame for both the DOJ and journalists: The story of the U.S. Department of Justice’s seizure of news organizations’ phone and email records moved into “who knew what and when” stage, especially regarding the case of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Fox didn’t know Rosen’s phone records and emails had been taken until it became public last week, but The Wall Street Journal reported this week that its parent company, News Corp., was notified by the DOJ in 2010 but didn’t tell Fox.

News Corp. issued some mixed signals in response, initially saying it had no record of notification from the DOJ but eventually conceding that it didn’t dispute the DOJ’s claim that notification was sent. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put forward a theory as to why it’s in News Corp.’s interest to be more deferential to the Obama administration DOJ, but in Fox News’ interest to be more antagonistic. However, The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve noted that Fox News doesn’t have a very good track record on advocating for journalists’ freedom in these cases.

The metastasizing issue — coupled with the DOJ’s seizure of what the Associated Press claims is “thousands and thousands” of its phone records — has led Attorney General Eric Holder to plan a meeting with the top representatives of several major news organizations to hash out guidelines for DOJ intrusion. Several news organizations, including The New York Times and AP, announced, however, that they wouldn’t attend the meeting because it’s set to be off the record. The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman wrote a thorough piece on Holder’s regrets in these cases, saying that it’s not part of the progressive image in which he views himself, and Salon’s Alex Pareene explained why Holder’s likely to keep his job despite the outcry.

In a pair of stories, The New York Times reported on the remarkable scale of many of the Obama administration’s leak inquiries and journalists’ charges that such efforts are creating a chilling effect on investigative journalism on the federal government. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian expressed his dismay at journalists’ lack of action against the administration’s actions: In the current climate, he said, “it’s very difficult to imagine the US press corps taking any meaningful steps to push back against these attacks. And as long as that’s true, it’s very hard to see why the Obama administration would possibly stop doing it.”

At the same time, several others argued that the press’s self-defense reaction is a bit too knee-jerk in this case. Slate’s Fred Kaplan and The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus both argued that Rosen’s source was not a whistleblower exposing corruption but someone simply breaking the law and revealing harmful information. And Reuters’ Jack Shafer contended that Obama has not declared war on the press, as his crusade against leaks has been much more on the supply side than the demand side.

Still others, including Peter Sterne of the New York Observer and Matthew Cooper of the National Journal, were concerned that the proposed shield law wouldn’t do enough to protect journalists. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones tried to find a middle way between their concern for journalists and the objections of those such as Pincus.

Facebook rape ad

Facebook, hate speech, and censorship: Yet another debate over Facebook’s control over its users’ content simmered this week, though it was a bit different from the privacy flaps of the past. A coalition of feminist groups called Women, Action, and the Media wrote an open letter to Facebook last week urging it to remove content that trivializes or glorifies violence against women, noting that Facebook already moderates what it considers hate speech and pornographic content.

The groups also campaigned to Facebook’s advertisers, succeeding in getting several of them to pull their advertising until Facebook took some action. Facebook ultimately responded by posting a statement saying it hadn’t policed gender-related hate speech as well as it should have and vowing to take several steps to more closely moderate such content. The New York Times has a good, quick summary tying together the advertiser campaign and Facebook’s response.

While Valleywag’s Sam Biddle argued that all Facebook did was try to placate those protesting rather than commit to any real action, while Forbes’ Kashmir Hill and Reuters’ Jack Shafer noted that Facebook probably didn’t do this out of any morally consistent concern over content, but simply because of advertiser pressure. Hill concluded that “the procedure appears to be that they will draw the line when advertisers start complaining to them,” and Shafer argued that Facebook has only pushed this discourse underground, further away from the voices of reason and shame.

And while everyone seemed to agree that Facebook’s well within its rights to police speech on its own platform (and that it’s clamping down on a particularly heinous form of speech in this case), they also wondered about the precedent. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered about the slippery slope of what Facebook considers hate speech.

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Newsweek on the block (again): Variety reported that IAC is attempting to sell Newsweek, a month after its chairman, Barry Diller, called his purchase of the magazine a “mistake.” IAC shut down Newsweek’s print edition at the end of 2012, turning it into a web-only publication. As Variety noted, most every indicator at Newsweek — subscriptions, traffic, cash flow — is trending downward.

Newsweek confirmed the attempted sale with an internal memo, saying that Newsweek is drawing resources away from its sister site, The Daily Beast. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici offered a more detailed explanation: Diller bought Newsweek thinking he needed a print publication to supplement its digital ad base, but since it’s failed at that, it’s become a mere distraction (and drag on the bottom line). Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan urged prospective buyers to stay away, though Mathew Ingram of paidContent offered some tips for its new owner: drop the paywall, aggregate, go deep on particular topics, develop a strong voice, and embrace mobile.

Reading roundup: Despite the quiet week overall, there were several smaller stories to watch:

— Rob Fishman of BuzzFeed wrote a thoughtful piece questioning whether the social media editor might be an endangered species at news organizations, as engagement with social media becomes a deeper part of each journalists’ work and routines. Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa (more on him in a bit) said social media editors are more important than ever, and Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins countered that many news organizations (especially smaller ones) still have a need for someone dedicated to newsroom-wide social media integration and gave some useful advice about how to do it. Elsewhere in social media, Twitter said it wants to partner with media companies rather than become one of them, and Jeswin and Jesse Koepke talked on Medium about how undo Facebook’s massification of online social interaction.

— One of the news industry’s most prominent social media editors, Anthony De Rosa, announced he’s leaving Reuters to join Circa, the startup that summarizes top news stories by breaking them down into “atomic units.” PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram explained what Circa’s up to, and Fast Company’s Anjali Mullany published a Q&A with De Rosa about his plans there.

— A few News Corp. pieces: It announced it will officially split into a publishing company (called News Corp.) and an entertainment company (21st Century Fox) on June 28. It introduced its retooled News Corp. logo, and the new News Corp.’s head, Robert Thomson, declared that it would have “relentless” cuts in store after the split.

— BuzzFeed announced a new YouTube channel featuring video through a partnership with CNN. The Wall Street Journal explained what’s behind both companies’ move deeper into online video.

— Finally, a couple of smart pieces on the native advertising phenomenon: CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis made the case against news orgs getting into native advertising, and Publish2′s Scott Karp laid out some of the difficulties of making native advertising scale.

March 25 2013

12:15

May 19 2011

18:45

In Lithuania, an Overdue Crackdown on Online Hate Speech

Online hate speech is becoming more and more widespread in Lithuania and until recently, comments like, "The world needs Hitler again to do the cleansing job," which was posted on a website called Delfi, or "Expel dirty Roma people out of Lithuania" would have gone unheeded by criminal justice.

"Although the Lithuanian Criminal Codex includes sufficient law provisions to prosecute instigators of hate and enmity, these provisions have been largely ignored by criminal judges," Vitoldas Maslauskas, former Vilnius County prosecutor, said last month.

Most law enforcement officials, Maslauskas said, ranging from high-level prosecutors to ordinary investigators, turn a blind eye to the practice of web hate speech for one simple reason: Criminal judges are swamped under real-life infringements and don't have time to chase down Internet bashers who, as a result, go untouched online.

Combatting Hate Speech

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One non-governmental organization though, the Tolerant Youth Association (TJA), is slowly but surely helping to harness the hate speech, with and without help from criminal justice.

"Although we have been actively carrying out various tolerance-inducing projects since the establishment of our association in 2005, it is only in recent years that we have been fighting against the practice of online hate speech," said Arturas Rudomanskis, chairman of TJA.

The association has initiated 58 pre-trial investigations this year into cases instigating hate and enmity: "It represents a rise of nearly double compared to last year's figure of 30-plus-something cases," Rudomanskis said.

"Until last year, we would pinpoint online hate-mongers to prosecutors. This year, however, we changed our tactics by creating an autonomous system allowing people to file complaints against online bashers directly to the prosecutor's office. This has undoubtedly worked out well, as conscious people extensively report hate cases to prosecutors," Rudomanskis said.

Thanks to the efforts of the Tolerant Youth Association, the online slanderers mentioned at the beginning of this article have been traced, prosecuted and punished.

Only a few years ago, it is likely that they would have escaped the law.

Bringing online slanderers to justice

The man instigating hate against Roma people turned out to be a 28-year-old manager of a company in the city of Utena in northeast Lithuania.

The District Court of Utena ruled that the man incited hate against Roma people and instigated to discriminate against them on the basis of their ethnicity. In his affidavit, the manager admitted the wrongdoing and justified his act by arguing that he had only voiced his opinion. He received a fine of LTL 1,300, which is roughly the equivalent of $535.

In such cases, local courts often seize the offenders' computers as the tools of crime. However, the Utena District Court decided not to confiscate the manager's computer.

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A 36-year-old inhabitant of the town of Anyksciai, who had urged to have "all gays" slain in an online response to an article about the first-ever Lithuanian gay pride parade, whimpered at the District Court of Anyksciai, explaining that he had merely intended to express his discontent against the gay march.

The judge was not impressed and punished him with a fine of nearly 400 euros ($570). District prosecutor Vigandas Jurevicius admitted the case was the first of its kind in his career.

"I launched the investigation following a complaint by the Tolerant Youth Association. To be honest, had it not been for the complaint, I would have not sought prosecution, as it is simply impossible to keep track of the post flow on the Internet," the prosecutor acknowledged.

Just starting the fight

In the meantime, TJA chairman Arturas Rudomanskis notes that the number of Internet surfers who report online slanderers is increasing and calls for a "more substantial" involvement of Lithuanian criminal justices against online hate speech.

"Actually, we have just started the fight," he said. "We are far away from seeing any major breakthrough just yet. However, I see much more support in Lithuanian society and in the media for online perpetrators of hate to be addressed in full force by the law."

According to Rudomanskis, online hate speech cases that reach court break down as follows: 70 percent of the cases are related to hate against homosexuals, and the rest is equally split between anti-Semitic and xenophobic abuse.

"Obviously, Lithuania remains one of the most homophobic countries in the European Union. This is directly reflected in Internet posts," Rudomanskis said.

TJA has succeeded in shutting down a gay hate-laden website set up by a member of an ultranationalist Lithuanian organization, as well as its Facebook page filled with anti-gay slurs.

The role of journalists in tackling online hate

"We have to admit that there are many angry people in Lithuania," said Zita Zamzickiene, the Lithuanian ombudsman for Journalism Ethics. "This is partly due to our recent heritage that goes back to the Soviet era. Homosexuals and ethnic minorities, unfortunately, fall in the category of people who most often become a punching bag. We can tackle the intolerance by educating our people and carrying out prevention programs."

Obviously, Lithuanian journalists can play a key role in curbing Internet slanderers by educating the population and promoting universal human values such as tolerance. For a small country like Lithuania that is still suffering from the post-Soviet syndrome, it may be an issue of utmost priority.

Linas Jegelevicius, 40, Lithuanian, obtained his master's degree in journalism at the Vilnius University Institute of Journalism. Between 1994 and 2004, he lived in New York and Miami, where he contributed to the Miami newspaper Wire. From 2001 until 2003, he edited and published his own newspaper, South Beach AXIS. Jegelevicius currently works as an editor for the regional newspaper Palangos tiltas, in the resort town of Palanga in the west of Lithuania. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times and Ooskanews.com. He has published two books, and his interests include politics, economics, journalism, literature, the English language (particularly urban English), psychology, traveling and human rights.

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, join us on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

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October 22 2010

17:57

Michigan Official's Hate Speech Protected by First Amendment

For the last few months, Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general of Michigan, has crusaded against the "radical homosexual agenda" of 21-year-old Chris Armstrong, the openly gay student-body president of the University of Michigan.

Shirvell has verbally attacked Armstrong at campus events, demonstrated outside the student's home, and has bashed the kid on his personal blog, Chris Armstrong Watch.

On that blog, which is now accessible only by invitation, Shirvell has called Armstrong a "privileged pervert" and "Satan's representative on the student assembly." He's accused Armstrong of "anti-Christian behavior" and "mocking God." One post included a photo of Armstrong with the word "resign" written across his face and a swastika superimposed on a gay pride flag; an arrow pointed from the flag to Armstrong. You can see it here.

Job on the Line

Shirvell appeared last month on CNN, on "Anderson Cooper 360," to defend his views and behavior, telling Cooper, "Chris Armstrong is a radical homosexual activist who got elected partly funded by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund to promote a very deeply radical agenda at the University of Michigan." Shirvell later added that he is a "Christian citizen exercising [his] First Amendment rights" and that "this is nothing personal against Chris." (Armstrong has also appeared on the show.)

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Since then, the sun has set on Shirvell's cause. He's on a personal leave of absence from the attorney general's office, the University of Michigan just banned him from campus, and a state judge will rule next week on a request, from Armstrong, for a personal protection order against him. What's more, Shirvell is the subject of unanimous condemnations from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission, and the Ann Arbor City Council.

His job is on the line, too. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm tweeted a few weeks ago that, "If I was still Attorney General and Andrew Shirvell worked for me, he would have already been fired." David Leyton, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, echoed Granholm, and a Facebook page, liked by over 16,000 people, maintains that Shirvell's "long history of bigotry makes him unfit to represent the state of Michigan."

Meanwhile, Mike Cox, the state attorney general, has refused to fire Shirvell. He released a statement a few weeks ago saying that Shirvell's "immaturity and lack of judgment outside the office are clear," but later told CNN that the First Amendment protects him -- that public employees do have the right to "express what they think and engage in political and social speech."

Cox is right.

The Legal Issues

Shirvell may be on thin ice, legally, for a variety of reasons (for example, his conduct towards Armstrong could cause him to be charged with harassment or stalking), but the First Amendment does protect his blogging. To make sense of this, it's helpful to keep a few things in mind.

First, the free speech clause protects the right of a person to speak without government interference. Speech includes blogging and others forms of online expression. That means, for example, a private employer can fire an employee because of his blogging, but a public employer, doing the same thing, might run afoul of the First Amendment. As an assistant attorney general, Shirvell is a public employee entitled to protection.

Second, the Supreme Court has ruled that a public employer may impose some restraints on the expression of its employees, on the theory that the government, like private employers, needs a significant degree of control over the management of its personnel and internal affairs. Still, significant does not mean unlimited.

In a series of cases, beginning with Pickering v. Board of Education, in 1968, the Court has created a balancing test to weigh the employee's speech interests against the government's interests in providing an efficient service to the public. Out of that series came a few general principles, applied here to online expression.

Public employees have a right to blog on their own time on topics unrelated to their employment. They also have a right to blog on their own time on topics related to their employment, if the topics are matters of public concern. Finally, the First Amendment does not protect them at all if they are blogging in the course of their regular duties, rather than on their own time.

Blogging During Work?

Against that backdrop, if the attorney general tried to fire Shirvell, the courts would call upon the First Amendment and likely would focus on whether he was blogging on his own time on topics unrelated to his employment. Shirvell has said a number of times that he blogged only at home, after hours, and Cox himself told CNN that Shirvell's job performance has been satisfactory. It's safe to say, too, that the content of the blog posts, on religion and homosexuality, were unrelated to his employment. In other words, they did not comment on the functioning of his workplace.

In turn, though, the attorney general's office might argue that Shirvell's blogging, regardless of the content, is related to his employment because it caused a substantial disruption in the workplace. After all, Cox had to investigate the issue and respond personally, the media blitz brought into question the impartiality and professionalism of the office, etc.

That would be a hard sell, and I doubt the courts would buy it, no matter any disruption, because Shirvell was using his blog to engage in social and political speech, which occupies what the Supreme Court once called the "highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values." Thus, it's entitled to special protection.

All of which means Andrew Shirvell, the state attorney who picked on a college student, the Christian who superimposed a swastika on a gay-pride flag, the guy who said it wasn't personal while making his attacks, is protected by the First Amendment.

Freedom for the thought that we hate, indeed.

Jonathan Peters is a doctoral student and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he's specializing in the First Amendment. He has a law degree from Ohio State University and has written on legal issues for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including the Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch and the National Jurist. Beyond journalism, Peters has worked at every level of the federal judiciary, with externships at the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. He can be reached at jonathan.w.peters@gmail.com.

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