Start the Press: What do you do when a free press is threatened? Keep on writing

By Rebecca Addison
Current Special Projects Editor

In early July, Allegheny Health Network cut ties with an employee after comments she made on social media went viral. In a post on Facebook, the woman, Denise Healy, expressed frustration over the recent spate of protests in Pittsburgh where marches have shut down streets, causing delays for motorists.

These protests were spurred after 17-year-old Antwon Rose II was shot and killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer during a traffic stop on June 19. Rose was suspected of involvement in a drive-by shooting, but was unarmed when he was shot three times by officer Michael Rosfeld.  The officer has since been charged with criminal homicide.

“I’m so annoyed with these stupid protesters that stick up and feel bad for that knucklehead Antwon Rose. He was up to no good and he got what he deserved,” Healy wrote days after Rose’s death. “Good job to the policeman who took out the sorry piece of crap good riddens [sic] one less idiot off our streets. Wish cops would do that more often.”

After Rose’s supporters were alerted to Healy’s remarks, AHN was contacted by several Facebook users and the healthcare group quickly responded.

“The regrettable views expressed yesterday on a former employee’s private social media page related to the shooting of Antwon Rose clearly do not reflect the position or values of our organization. The employee in question is no longer affiliated with Allegheny Health Network. We take such matters seriously and have addressed it in an appropriate manner,” AHN said in a statement.

While AHN has not confirmed whether Healy was fired or resigned, many who rushed to the woman’s defense have said her First Amendment rights are being violated.  

“What happened to her freedom of speech?” wrote Facebook user Debbie Miller. “She didn’t hurt a soul, she gave her opinion. There is no reason in the world she should of been fired or ask to resign.”

But here’s the thing: the First Amendment doesn’t protect employees from being fired for exercising free speech. Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state, meaning private employers have the right to fire an employee for any reason they want, unless they are firing that person because they are a member of a protected class. Employers can’t fire someone because of their race or gender, but they can fire those they don’t agree with.

Understanding the First Amendment has never been more important in Pittsburgh and around the country. While people are being fired for racist remarks made on social media, journalists in local newsrooms are being fired because their views don’t jibe with their employer’s.

Experts say what’s happening in newsrooms isn’t a violation of the First Amendment, but they do believe these firings are a threat to democracy. And even more startling, they say, is the nationwide trend toward silencing those whose views you oppose.

On college campuses administrators are turning away speakers when students oppose their messaging. Elected officials are banning constituents on social media. And President Donald Trump consistently labels news reporting he disagrees with as fake.

“There is a dangerous current in this country of trying to shut up people we disagree with,” says Vic Walczak, legal director of ACLU Pennsylvania. “But unless all people are allowed or given the space to speak any views, you don’t really have free speech. That is not healthy for democracy. The answer for speech we don’t like is not censorship. The answer is more speech.”

In February of 2017, American Urban Radio Network journalist April Ryan was anxiously awaiting Trump’s first presidential press conference. After serving as a White House correspondent during the tenures of three previous administrations, she says the president’s first press conference usually sets the tone for the years to follow. She likens the experience to getting ready for a dance or a first date. But Trump’s first press conference, she told a crowd in Pittsburgh last month, was more like a “first date from hell.”

“They want us out of the building, they don’t even want us there,” Ryan said. “What we yearn for everyday is access, access to find out  about the president, what his thoughts are, what his principles are because if you don’t know, you won’t know. If the press isn’t asking questions of the president, you will not know. Sometimes our questions help change policy.”

Ryan was in Pittsburgh last month as part of The First Amendment for the Twenty First Century conference. There, she related her experience serving under the current administration and how Trump’s relationship with the media compares to previous administrations. And while she says the First Amendment ensures she has a seat in press briefings, the Trump administration has not been open with the press.  

“Things have changed. For every bit of access we’ve gained, they’ve pulled it all back. The free and independent press was put in place by our founding fathers to ask questions, to hold the highest office in the land accountable…” Ryan said. “We are there to get answers for communities that are underserved.”

Freedom of the press was one of several topics discussed at the June conference hosted by the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. The conference came at a time when the two nonprofit organizations say the first amendment is under threat.

In his opening remarks, Pittsburgh Foundation President Maxwell King illustrated just a few of recent incidents where free speech has come under attack. He included a violent altercation in March 2017 where a controversial speaker at Middlebury College in Vermont was met with hundreds of student protesters. The speaker, Charles Murray, has been identified as a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Murray’s book “The Bell Curve,” links lower socio-economic status with race and intelligence.

“These incidents show us society’s struggle to truly understand and be true to the values of the first amendment,” King said. “Freedom of speech is all too often misunderstood and undervalued, as is freedom of the press.”

At the two-day conference in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Sotsky, director of learning and impact for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, presented the results of a 3,014-respondent survey examining how college students view the First Amendment. According to the 2017 survey, college students have become more likely to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense.

Sixty-four percent of college students surveyed said freedom of speech is secure in this country, a drop of nearly 10 points from 73 percent in 2016. Sixty percent said freedom of the press is secure, a decrease of 20 points from 81 percent the year before. And 57 percent of students said the right of freedom of assembly is secure, down from 66 percent.  

According to the survey, 56 percent of students said protecting free speech rights are important to democracy. More important, respondents said, is diversity and inclusion. And the students surveyed overwhelmingly did not believe the First Amendment should protect hate speech.

Despite shifting attitudes toward the First Amendment, ninety percent of college students say it is never acceptable to use violence to prevent someone from speaking, but 10 percent say it is acceptable sometimes. Thirty-seven percent of college students also believe shouting down speakers, like what occured at the Vermont college, is sometimes acceptable.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, including its Pittsburgh branch, works on thousands of First Amendment cases annually. These include complaints involving political yard signs, campaign door knocking and the protests in Pittsburgh this Spring where hundreds of students walked out to decry school shootings and government inaction.  

But despite the growing concerns over free speech violations, Walczak says he doesn’t believe the number of complaints the ACLU receives is increasing drastically.

“I don’t know that I can quantify it. But what I do know is we litigate fewer of these cases and I think part of it is we’ve pounded so many different communities with successful lawsuits where they end up paying attorney’s fees that now when we get a complaint it rarely takes more than a letter to make the problem go away,” Walczak says. “I think we’re getting fewer complaints. We still get them, but I don’t think they come in in the same volume. I think the types of violations have changed overtime. Ten years ago we wouldn’t be talking about Twitter and Facebook censorship.”

Last year, one of their cases included complaints made regarding Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris’ Facebook page. The ACLU threatened to sue Harris in November for blocking several Facebook users who posted negative comments on her public page.

“If it’s an official government page then the constitution applies,” Walczak says. “When you set up a Facebook page that invites commentary, it then becomes a designated public forum and the rules for that kind of forum are that you cannot censor based on viewpoint. So you can’t censor, block or erase your critics from that page. On Twitter, you can’t block people because they’re critical of you.”

To resolve the issue, Harris created an official public page, separate from her personal page, where she provides information about her district and the city as a whole.

“The reason it’s so important is whether it’s Facebook or Twitter, these pages are used often to share important information with constituents,” says Walczak. “So if someone’s critical of you and you block them, you’re blocking them from information you obviously think it’s important for constituents to receive. And you can’t not give that same service to people who are critical of you or your opponents.”

Beyond the recent issue with Harris, Walczak says the city has been better at abiding the First Amendment in recent years. In particular, he says the city has done a good job of handling the protests in response to 17-year-old Rose’s death.

“I have to say that–maybe from 25 years of pounding the city in federal court on free speech violations or getting more enlightened leadership–that we’ve been impressed by how city police and state police have handled the protests,” Walczak says. “There haven’t been many arrests. It seems like the law enforcement handling of those protests has been quite responsible, especially compared to what we’ve seen in some other cities.”

But even though Walczak says local governments are doing a better job of handling First Amendment rights, he’s still seeing some startling trends, particularly as it relates to freedom of the press.

This journalist would be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room. The impetus for the focus of this piece and the newspaper you’re reading was the firing of our publisher Charlie Deitch. For more than a decade, Deitch worked at the Pittsburgh City Paper where he was eventually promoted to editor-in-chief. In May he was fired after he says he was told to stop covering homophobic state representative Daryl Metcalfe. Deitch refused and was fired.

And Deitch isn’t the only local newspaper employee who says he was fired for his commentary on a conservative government official. Longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers says he was recently fired because his work was too critical of President Trump. Like those being fired for remarks they’ve made on social media, Rogers’ firing doesn’t violate the First Amendment, but ACLU’s Walczak says it’s setting a dangerous precedent.

“The publishers have the authority to publish what they want to publish but the danger is for democracy. If all the publishers are ideologues of a particular stripe, you don’t truly have a free and independent press which is essential to democracy,” says Walczak. “It’s not a threat to freedom of the press because it’s not the government dictating this. But it is a threat to democracy to not have independent news outlets in a community.”

And beyond the incidents in local newsrooms, Walczak says firing people because you don’t approve of their views is a slippery slope, even if it’s not against the law.

“Is that a danger to free speech in our country? It is,” Walczak says. “Because people have to be scared of saying what they really believe which is not really healthy for democracy.”

Pittsburgh Post Gazette editor Greg Victor was in China during the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy in 1989. His experience, covering the movement as a journalist and meeting journalists being persecuted in the country, has informed much of his work ever since.

“That whole democracy movement was really inspiring, to see people risking their lives to gain their rights and hold their government accountable,” Victor says. “That was a pretty powerful impetus to become interested in the issue of free expression.”

For more than two years, Victor has been working on the International Free Expression Project, an effort dedicated to building public support for free-expression rights. The project centers around the block-long, 40-foot-high printing press room in the P-G’s former space. When the newspaper relocated recently, the plan was to scrap the presses, which have long served as a beacon of the the free-press, easily visible through the building’s windows, but Victor had a better idea.

“They’re just these beautiful machines. And I thought artists would love to get a hold of this stuff and repurpose it,” Victor says. “And then it occured to me that this could be fashioned into a really significant piece of public art dedicated to the free press and free expression. I looked around and couldn’t find anything like that in the world. And at the same time, journalists, bloggers and dissidents are being captured around the world so it feels like a really good time to make a statement that all of us committed to free expression and free speech need to stand up for it.”

The plan is for the old P-G space to serve as a “marketplace of ideas” complete with rebuilt presses, artwork, food stands, coffee carts and musicians. The project is also launching an international design competition.   

“It all kind of evolved into this rather massive and ambitious project,” Victor says. “This could really be something special and really help colesce a movement. We want to work with young people and really drive home the importance of protecting these rights. When you think of the American education system, not much time is really spent on the First Amendment.”

According to the Knight Foundation, there are currently 260 journalists in jails around the world. That’s why Victor believes his project is so vitally important. And while Americans tend to focus on threats to journalists abroad, many say news organizations are currently under attack right here at home. A few weeks ago, five American journalists were killed at the Capital Gazette in Maryland.

According to a 2017 report from the Media Insight Project, only 24 percent of Americans believe the news media in general are moral. And just 17 percent of Americans give the news media high marks for being “very accurate.”

Some believe the current negative climate around the media has been driven largely by the president’s rhetoric about newspapers. The president regularly lambastes members of the media at his rallies, encouraging crowds to boo them.  This year, he announced the first ever Fake News Awards to highlight news outlets he says were responsible for misrepresenting him or producing false reports. And while many have made light of the president’s views of the media, recent events indicate demonizing news organizations can have dire consequences. What’s more, the impact on American democracy could be devastating.

“Clearly there are many situations overseas that are much more dire, but that said, we just had five journalists murdered,” Victor says. “The atmosphere in the United States is being poisoned against journalists. Part of that is the effort by the president to demonize the press. Americans now are feeling the pressures.The whole fake news thing is ultimately to bring us to the point where people have a hard time distinguishing what the truth is.  It cracks down on the greatest benefits of the First Amendment.”


One Comment

  • Diane Johnson says:

    Thank you for exposing the various ways, both legal and illegal, that we repress freedom of speech. It concerns me that employers are firing their employees for what they say and do when “not on the clock”, even when it is an egregious viewpoint being expressed, in my opinion, as in your first example. Employers hold a lot of power over the employed and can greatly skew and influence our ability to speak freely if we fear losing our jobs. I’m looking forward to more articles.

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