Abby Honeycutt, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2016 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the prompt: “The freedoms of speech and press are sometimes at conflict with the right of privacy in instances such as when the newspaper publicizes personal facts about a public figure or when one person spreads a rumor about another. In cases where one right must take priority over the other, which one would you sacrifice and why?”
Few lines of melody are as universally recognized and enigmatically enduring as McDonald’s infamous “Ba da ba ba bah…I’m loving it.” Beginning in 1955 and having since expanded operations to over 119 different countries, McDonald’s has a long and successful history of tapping into something that undeniably (and inexplicably) attracts. In our new, “enlightened” era of organic, farm-raised produced and overpriced probiotics, however, there exists a dichotic tension between being good to one’s body (e.g. not eating McDonald’s) and still wanting to satiate the shameless cravings for junk food that occasionally plague us all. When faced with this excruciating personal dilemma, it becomes quickly and undeniably clear that one of these must be sacrificed for the sake and integrity of the other.
An arguably more thought-worthy tension is that which arises between the First Amendment freedom of speech and the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy. It makes sense that in a society built upon free speech and free press, there would be instances in which such speech has the power to damage reputations and promote falsehood (because protection of true speech was never designated or intended). That being said, restricting speech simply for the sake of ensuring truth or protecting people’s feelings would be an unfortunate, unnecessary, and unwarranted sacrifice of one of our nation’s most prized doctrines. Yes, I believe that people are entitled to their own integrity and hard-earned reputation. However, to obstruct speech in order to ensure that these remain undamaged would, by default, inhibit much more important truths from ever coming to light. “Protecting” people, in this sense, could only come at the cost of silencing others, and that is something that a progressive and vital society simply cannot afford to do.
To limit free speech in the interest of protecting privacy would eventually result in a culture that is stagnant (for the fact that nothing new is being said) and oppressed (without the luxury of holding those in power to any sort of accountability). To this end, one must acknowledge that privacy is no guaranteed precursor to safety. People may feel safe simply for the fact that they don’t know what to be afraid of—the unfortunate, yet inevitable result of a press that isn’t free to inform its citizenry. While it remains that petty slander, outright libel, and negligent lies are undeniably damaging and cannot be condoned, the loss of free speech would be inconceivably greater than any risk to smeared reputations and hurt feelings. Like those 536 calories and 29 grams of trans fat disguised in a delicious but devastating Big Mac, the right to privacy undoubtedly feels good in the moment, however, if indulged too much, will prove permanently damaging and irreversible to one’s overall health. What must be emphasized above all is that the repetitive sacrifice of free speech for the sake of temporary, feel-good satisfaction (e.g. constitutional Big Macs) will inevitably result in a society that is unhealthy, undisciplined, and failing at its once-vibrant, pumping core.
Abby is a junior at Pepperdine University majoring in Public Relations.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.