Censorship of the media

This letter is in response to an editorial
that appeared in the January 27th edition of the Caymanian Compass.

The editor referred to comments
made by “one radio talk show host” in an editorial titled ‘Media relations 101’.

Let me confirm that I was that host
and I take full responsibility for the opinion expressed. My comments simply
were, though said in a broader context, “I could understand the logic behind
both sides of the argument either for or against control of the media”.  Before I begin let me first concede, that censorship,
in any form represents a slippery slope and therefore any such action should
never be entered into lightly.  I also
accept the editorial’s opinions coming from a standpoint of opposing censorship
of the media. I, on the other hand, believe there is likewise room to support
media censorship in certain circumstances and I will attempt to qualify my previous
remarks herein.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was the US
Supreme Court Justice at the turn of the century, argued in the 1919 United
States Supreme Court case Schenck vs. United States, that “Freedom of Speech
does not permit an individual to yell, ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theatre, causing
panic.” He argued that while truthful, this statement is also dangerous.

I believe the same is true about sensational
news headlines; headlines that are designed to grab our attention or sell
papers may be considered what Holmes described as being a “clear and present danger,”
which Government has the right to prevent. 
Most recently the Commissioner of Police, David Baines commented that he
believed sensational news headlines have lead to the belief that crime is worse
than it really is. There is, in my opinion, some truth in that. 

It is my opinion that in any well run
society, a degree of control must be applied, especially if that society has a
small, fragile economy or an economy, which is largely built on public
perception. As unpopular as the actions of then Leader of Government Business,
now Premier, were following Hurricane Ivan, to restrict media access in order
to protect our tourism business; I can understand the dilemma that faced the
Leader and the impetus behind his ultimate decision, given the income the Islands
derive from this sector. One future visitor who changes their vacation plans
can just as easily turn into thousands or hundreds of thousands who change
their plans. Imagine what the absence of that income would do to our currently
fragile economy?

Similarly, following Tuesday’s earthquake;
if the Premier’s comments, which were made when he called the programme, inferred
a similar action, for similar reasons, I saw those fears as being well founded.
The spoken or printed word is a funny thing. Once uttered, it is difficult to
take back. When larger issues such as the life of our national economy are at
stake, greater care and attention needs to be given to the information that is
disseminated, otherwise it can, as Holmes argued, represent a clear and present
danger, and must, out of necessity be suppressed.

Editor’s note: The exact wording in
the section of US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s decision,
writing for the majority opinion in the landmark 1919 Schenck vs. US case (to
which Mr. Harris presumably refers), was: “The most stringent protection of
free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and
causing a panic”. In fact, it could be argued that shouting “Fire!” when the
theater was actually on fire might be considered a public service – and in any
case would certainly be protected speech.

Also of note, a later US Supreme
Court case, Brandenburg vs. Ohio, further narrowed the ability of government to
ban or restrict speech to utterings which would incite “imminent lawless
action”.

In any event, these cases all stem
out of US law, from which Cayman and UK legal systems will often differ quite
significantly. If Mr. Harris wishes to support harsher restrictions on free
speech in the Cayman Islands, or is simply playing devil’s advocate in a
discussion, that’s always his right. It’s his talk show after all.

We,
then, must reserve our right to free speech as well when misinformed
opinion-givers foolishly equate newspaper headlines to a manner of speech that
would put people’s lives in imminent danger.