Everything's Free But The Speech

Less than 24 hours after the tragic shooting deaths at Columbine High School in Colorado, the news media were looking to blame the Internet for inspiring the young suspects, who were also killed in an apparent suicide.

According to the Associated Press, high school students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were Internet enthusiasts. The article implies the students might have created their arsenal of bombs from instructions on the web. Of course, there is no immediate evidence that this is the case.

However you look at it, the incident is a tragic one and a sad statement on the state of our kids. But the quick reaction of the traditional media to blame the Internet is also indicative. And this isn’t the first time the media have portrayed the Internet as the monster underneath our children’s beds.

Coming Up After America’s Most Spectacular Decapitations

The media, particularly the nightly television news, has been bringing a barrage of shootings, robberies, arsons, kidnappings and bombings to our living rooms every night for a few decades. Yet, they are very quick to point out the evil Internet lurking in our homes, giving our children advice on how to make bombs.

Since the airwaves of television and radio are licensed to commercial entities, and the Internet is open to anyone with even a passing understanding of the Internet, there is a suggested inherent evil about the Internet. On the Internet, it’s those people who put that stuff up there. However, on the Internet, they are we.

After the shock of the events of April 20, news analysts and pundits will start trying to figure out ways to prevent this tragedy from repeating in the next small town. Two issues will rise to the surface: Gun control and the Internet.

In the zeal to appear as though they’re doing something, politicians will predictably declare open season on civil rights. In addition to a debate over searches and seizures of our nation’s high school students, watch for an effort to limit First Amendment rights — specifically freedom of expression on the Internet.

One Man’s Threat is Another Man’s Hairdo

While the sane and humane among us would never endorse the content of so-called hate sites, we must remain diligent in assuring that those views are not squelched by censorship because they are considered objectionable.

After all the e-commerce hoopla and high-tech hype, the Internet is the global version of the town square. It is a marketplace of ideas. Rather than considering that a threat, we need to see it as a benefit.

TV, radio and print media have been around a while and have efficient lobbying efforts in our nation’s and states’ capitals. The Internet is still trying to find its political voice. This is one reason why there’s so much discourse on whether we should allow these alleged bomb making recipes to be on the Internet. However, these are recipes which are also available in hard copy at bookstores and through other sources such as magazines.

Who Decides What’s Objectionable?

Another problem with trying to regulate content on the Internet is that this is indeed a global village. The United States cannot — and should not — regulate the content that is developed or hosted in other parts of the world. What government has the moral authority to regulate content anyway?

As a lawyer/friend of ours who specializes in First Amendment issues says, “If you begin to regulate and prohibit scenes of graphic violence in the marketplace, then you will step onto the proverbial slippery slope. If fictional movie violence is prohibited, then is the depiction of violence in a movie about a real-life tragic school shooting similarly prohibited?

“If the non-fiction film depictions are not fair game, then at what point will the media be told what parts of such a violent story (words, images, sounds) they are not allowed to report? And who will be deciding what to prohibit?”

There was a time in this nation’s history when the distribution of birth control information was illegal. There are plenty of groups who would be just fine going back to that regulation. This is just one example of the kind of content that could be objectionable to enough people with political clout as to threaten its free distribution.

There may be some truth to the notion that these or other violent kids have been somehow influenced by images they see or words they read in various media. But it may also be safe to say that emotionally stable kids in healthy loving families probably would not react in the same way as the two in Colorado, or Oregon, or Arkansas.

Read My Lips

Rather than focus the energy on the relatively easy path of regulating information — or like one high school, banning trench coats on campus — it’s in our better interest to dig deeper and see what makes certain kids more vulnerable than others to suggestions of hate or violence. Unfortunately, these questions and answers are extremely difficult in a political climate dominated by campaign-slogan-sized salves to social ills.

As Internet professionals, we can be part of the solution or part of the problem. By remaining silent while freedom of speech is on the chopping block, we hurt ourselves. And by remaining silent and not trying to use our influence in some way to address the deeper issues facing our kids, we also hurt ourselves.

Wouldn’t it be great if, someday, there were online resource centers for troubled kids who may feel they have no one to help them? Wouldn’t it be great if responsible parents and adults fought on the same turf as the hate crimes in reaching our kids? Wouldn’t it be great if we, as marketers and experts on online communications, opened the lines of communications with our nation’s (and world’s) kids for more than their credit card numbers?

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