The prince and the press: Why America’s news media must stay free

Sunday, November 23, 2003

The current royal scandal has Great Britain’s news media playing connect-the-dots.

A former aide to Prince Charles apparently has alleged that the prince engaged in sexual activity with another former aide, a charge that has yet to see print in Great Britain because of a court order barring publication of this story.

Why have Britain’s tabloids steered clear of the specific allegations? It has to do with Great Britain’s decidedly different take on press freedom.

In Great Britain, anyone publishing negative allegations about someone has to be able to prove those charges in a court of law. This standard applies whether the plaintiff is a prince or a pauper.

At first glance, this sounds both logical and fair. After all, if you publish a story that harms someone’s reputation, shouldn’t you have to back it up? Yet if the United States held the same interpretation of press freedom, we might never have learned about a certain White House intern’s relationship with President Clinton. It also would have meant that Gary Condit’s relationship with Chandra Levy would not have been disclosed.

Beyond sex scandals, it would mean that stories about corrupt officials and violations of the public trust would go unreported until the press had the confidence and evidence to rival a prosecutor’s.

In pivotal First Amendment cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that it’s in a democracy’s best interest to encourage thorough reporting on the nation’s public officials and to ensure access to public documents and public meetings.

The First Amendment gives America’s press far greater latitude than Great Britain’s has. There’s a recognition that the press has a watchdog role, which includes exploring allegations about public officials.

This means that, unless there’s an issue of national security, no American court can tell a newspaper not to publish a story. It also means that, without a showing that the newspaper or broadcaster acted recklessly or with knowledge that the story was false, public officials can’t successfully sue the press.

There’s no question that many Americans would see some benefit in Great Britain’s system. Our 1999 State of the First Amendment survey – conducted in the wake of the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal – found that a record 53% of Americans said there was too much freedom of the press. While that number subsided to 46% this year, there’s little question that many Americans react negatively to sex and sensationalism in their newscasts.

But imagine the alternative. The court order hasn’t dampened public interest in the Prince Charles incident; it has only fed irresponsible rumors and reporting on Web sites.

Sex scandals involving public officials generate plenty of heat, wherever they occur. In America, a press that is able to freely publish information can give us light along with that heat.

The difference between the United States and Great Britain in defining press freedom is a reminder that while other countries – including our closest allies – protect core rights, our nation is singular in the scope of freedoms it embraces and the zeal with which its courts protect them.

Of course, most Americans also tend to take these fundamental freedoms for granted. In fact, our 2003 survey indicates that one American in three believes there’s just too much freedom in the First Amendment.

There’s no question that freedom bears some cost, including salacious reporting, troublesome content on the Internet and unpopular groups marching down Main Street. But these are mere nuisances to a nation with the courage to declare that every voice can be heard and every viewpoint can be published.

Great Britain, one of the world’s freest nations, clearly does not embrace the concept of press freedom as fully as the United States. At the other end of the political spectrum, Iraq – until recently one of the least free nations – now hungers for these liberties. In a Gallup Poll released last week, 98% of Baghdad residents said their nation’s new constitution should guarantee freedom of speech.

Our Constitution – including the Bill of Rights – has long served as a model for new democracies around the globe. Freedom remains our most important export.

It’s not a coincidence that the world’s most powerful and influential nation is also the most free.

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