What We Can Say, And Whether We Should

I love the First Amendment. I really do. It’s why I have my job. It’s why you get to watch bro movies and cooking shows on Netflix. It’s a big part of the reason that this country even exists. Obviously, with the good comes the bad. The First Amendment – the inability for the U.S. government to make laws that abridge freedom of speech, religion and assembly – is also the reason we have things like Donald Trump and naturalnews.com. It’s give and take, but ultimately it’s worth it.

In college, I took a media law class that included a moot court experience. It was SCOTUS role play, and I was nicknamed “Ruth.” If you know me, that’s probably not surprising. I don’t remember what case we discussed, but I remember it was about the First Amendment, and I remember grappling with this idea that yes, even horrible things people say are, for the most part, legal, and cannot be censored by the government. At the time, I was still learning what it really meant to be a journalist, and what kind of power a writer can have. I was learning my own voice, and the responsibility that I would have once I published something – anything, journalism or not. I remember sitting in the small auditorium, channeling RBG but fielding so many emotions. Some things are just wrong, I thought, and we should discuss why. But in that class, and in my brief encounter with studying for the LSAT and my 3+ years writing about the law, I learned that there’s a big difference between what’s legal and what’s “right.” There is overlap, sure. But while Little Kait once believed that laws were made only to help people and ensure everyone got along while living the American Dream, Grown Up Kait understands there is nuance. Thankfully, there is also ethics.

Today, an essay on xoJane in which one woman shared her opinions and feelings about another woman’s mental illness and death, went viral. The author of the piece concluded that this person – who she didn’t know very well and hadn’t spoken to for a while, and didn’t particularly like – was better off dead, because she was so mentally ill she must have been miserable, and also quite a burden to her family. I’m paraphrasing, but if you Google “xoJane” today, you will see several response pieces and probably also a cached copy (xoJane took the piece down and replaced it with an apology after the obvious blowback). Apart from the obvious question – why is this an “essay” worth publishing? – this brought out a lot of concern in the online writing community. One reason: it essentially encouraged the idea that if one is extremely mentally ill, one may be better off dead, something that people who are already more likely to consider suicide really don’t need to hear. The second reason: it’s yet another symptom of the clickbait outrage manipulation machine. Media critic Jenn Pozner calls these #clickbaitcrimes. Sites like xoJane and YourTango mine for the juiciest, most scandalous stories and opinions (or stories and opinions that they can make juicy and scandalous with wild headlines) and throw their authors to the wolves. And sometimes those wolves are rightfully hungry.

This piece was obviously horrible, and it started a lot of good conversations about mental health and media ethics, hopefully before it did any damage. But it also brought out the trusty First Amendment argument, and its little sister “censorship!” I was really disappointed to see several writers – including journalists – argue that unpublishing an essay like this is censorship that puts publications on a “slippery slope” toward silencing any “unpopular opinion.”

It is my hope that most people can see this situation for what it really is – not just an unpopular opinion or poorly-written essay, but a missive that could cause real harm to vulnerable people, and not a government-sanctioned silencing of protected speech, but private companies and groups choosing not to associate with such content. Not all writers are journalists, or go to journalism school. And I understand how attached we are to the ability to share our thoughts and opinions through the written word. But I think deep down, most of us understand that doing so is a privilege, not a right. If a publication or group decides that they think we are dangerous, or unfair, or simply not good at writing, they are within their rights to say so, and take action. And the great news is that we are within our rights to spread our views elsewhere. As much as it pains me to say it, there are dozens of other websites that would publish this woman’s words and not think twice, no matter the response. And no law should prevent them from doing so. But, ethics…

Ethics aren’t something that can be forced on anyone. In the writing community, we don’t have any kind of code that we have to sign in order to publish. We do have the Society of Professional Journalists, which does a great job of setting standards and best practices, but not all writers are journalists, and not all journalists agree with what the SPJ has to say. Ethics, in general, are often very personal. They come from experience, education, empathy. They take work to cultivate and truly put into practice.

My worry is that with the current clickbait outrage manipulation machine, in which publications like xoJane and its parent company Time Inc. want you to be upset, want you to comment, want you to share indignantly, people aren’t taking time to develop these ethics, or implement them. And I don’t just mean writers – an editor had to say “OK, sure!” to the piece celebrating an ex-friend’s death. I think the solution to this is better media literacy, which is a huge issue that I am working on getting more involved in. But in the meantime, I hope writers – who I know are tired, and broke, and struggling – will be more careful with the way they treat the First Amendment. Bringing it up as a reason why someone like the author mentioned above should not be criticized, or asked to leave a publication or group, is inaccurate, and it’s frankly a cop out. The First Amendment is vital, it’s important, and yes, it protects even words we do not like. But it’s not a substitute for ethics.