The freedom of the press is a fundamental right ensured by the First Amendment of the Constitution. It is at the forefront of democracy. The First Amendment is twofold: it ensures the freedom of the press and the freedom of speech. These freedoms guarantee that the press can report on important issues in order to inform the masses, and society can speak out and voice their opinions without government interference.
Over the last month, over 20 high-level executives across multiple industries have been accused of sexual assault. These accusations were catalyzed by the publishing of “From Aggressive Overture to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories” on October 5, 2017. This ripple effect of victims of sexual assault coming forward was sparked by this New Yorker article, a piece that may not have been published if the press were censored. Due to media outlets publicizing these allegations, people are coming out and speaking up against their accusers, and actions are being taken. High-level executives are getting fired and victims are getting the justice they deserve.
It takes a great deal of courage for survivors to come forward and name their abuser. Despite conspiracy theories that false accusations are being made in order to take down celebrities and people in power, victims are actually coming forward in hopes of inspiring other women to do the same. An increased rate of reporting leads to an increased rate of convictions. Survivors are trying to break the stigma against talking about sexual assault in order to bring this cycle of tragedy to an end.
Sexual assault has been published by the press in the past. Unfortunately, the allegations against Weinstein only gained so much traction because the accusers are celebrities with high status and fame; they have power. Weinstein’s accusers were able to band together and utilize their status and power to collectively seek justice. While the process for a victim seeking justice can be invasive, desensitized, and demoralizing, these victims have found strength in numbers in order to tell their stories to the public—something they wouldn’t have been able to do without freedom of speech.
The right to speak freely has been pivotal in motivating and allowing women to come forward. It even allows victims to accuse attackers regardless of their rank in government. Two high-level government officials currently facing accusations of sexual assault are President Trump and Judge Roy Moore. During his election campaign, President Trump was accused of sexual violence by multiple women, one of whom is Summer Zervos, a former contestant on President Trump’s show “The Apprentice”. The freedom of speech allows women like Zervos to speak out and take legal action against one of the most powerful men in the world, the President of the United States. If this freedom were not protected under the Constitution, would these women have been able to do this? Despite his efforts to stop this legal suit from gaining traction, the right to speak freely allows alleged victims to publically hold an elected official accountable for their actions, which according to XYZ is necessary in order to establish and maintain democracy.
Judge Moore, a Republican Senate candidate, has recently been accused of engaging in sexual activity with a 14-year-old in the late 1970s and has denied all allegations. Just as freedom of speech allows victims to publically name their accuser, it also affords those accused with the right to defend themselves. Both of these men claim these they are a part of a larger conspiracy against them. In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Hofstadter coins the term “paranoid style” in order to describe various times of hysteria due to conspiracies in US history. The term relates back to the psychological definition of paranoia that describes both Trump and Judge Moore’s reactions to these allegations against them.
Regardless of how far-fetched these conspiracy theories are, their attempts to delegitimize these sexual assault allegations are protected by the freedom of speech. Trump has spoken out against these allegations, labeling them as fake news. Judge Moore has also labeled all allegations against him as conspiracies and fake news. Freedom of speech allows Steve Bannon has accused the Washington Post of conspiring against both President Trump and Judge Moore. Bannon goes far enough to accuse the Post of deliberately attacking both men in hopes of “destroying” them. Above all else, the above illustrates the necessity of freedom of expression in a democracy, despite the validity of these claims.
As groundbreaking as the recent avalanche of women coming forward has been, it has also highlighted a shortcoming of the press. The accusers and the accused all hold high-level jobs of interest to the public eye. They have all been famed celebrities or entertainment influencers, people that the press constantly reports on. Hopefully, this wave of accusations will pave the way to a new era of how we as a society talk about, address, and react to sexual assault accusations. With luck, it will further motivate sexual assault victims of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to come forward in accusing their abusers.
The ability to speak freely allows victims to come forward. But that is not enough. Before the Weinstein allegations, these victims hesitated to come forward due to fear of retribution, despite their right to free speech. The conversations started by the press has empowered victims to overcome that fear. Furthermore, we can only hope that the media will continue to break the stigma of talking about sexual assault. It puts pressure on companies to fire those accused of sexual violence. In short, people enacting their right to free speech on media platforms catalyzes action.
Democracy is a type of governmental system meant to represent the masses. Freedom of speech allows society to voice their opinions and feel represented. If there was no way for these women to be able to speak out and share their stories, their rights are being oppressed. That would go against a principal ideal of democracy.
Photo by Sgt. Ashley Bell, U.S. Army.