The media frenzy over Kobe Bryant’s death

Note: An edited version of this blog item appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 3, 2020.

The controversy over the suspension and rapid reinstatement of a Washington Post reporter after a social media firestorm over coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death illustrates all too well where we are in the passion and often bad decision making of the digital age. In the hours after the initial report that the NBA legend had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, reporter Felicia Sonmez sent a tweet with a link to a story on a years-old sexual assault allegation. 

There is a fundamental journalistic issue that has vexed obituary writers for generations. When a person dies, the general rule is to speak kindly and with reverence. Yet, many who die have bad things in their past. 

Bryant in 2003 was accused of sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel employee in Edwards, Colo., not far from the celebrated ski areas of Vail and Beaver Creek.  The criminal charges eventually were dropped. A civil lawsuit resulted in an undisclosed settlement. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual. It should be noted that Bryant in 2001 had married Vanessa Lane, the mother of his four children. One of the daughters, Gianna, 13, also died in the crash, as did seven others.

The tweet by Sonmez linked to a Daily Beast story published in 2016, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” In an email sent to her and later released by Sonmez, executive editor Marty Baron said: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” 

Perhaps reacting to the thousands of negative and often threating tweets and other social media comments, the paper placed Sonmez on administrative leave. Members of the paper’s Newspaper Guild protested the decision, saying that she should have been offered protection in light of the threats she received. The Washington Post isn’t the first mainstream news organization to cope with ethical complexities of social media, and it won’t be the last. The paper has made the right decision in reinstating Sonmez.

The day after the suspension, I posed the question to a class of 90 undergraduate students in my Media Ethics course at SMU in Dallas. A number of students spoke up. The consensus seemed to be that the reporter shouldn’t have sent out the tweet. There was clear sensitivity to the emotion of the moment when a beloved athlete with global standing was lost in a tragedy. And yet, there was clear sentiment that the suspension of the reporter was overreaction. I agree with the students on both counts. Any discussion of the sexual assault allegation would have been better handled with time and thoughtful consideration of the full picture of Bryant’s life. Unfortunately, the digital age doesn’t allow for that.

So much of what happens now is a digital moment. Social media and the immediacy of the Internet seem to dictate action and reaction with little thought. Good, solid reporting that is factual and sensitive gets overwhelmed in the news cycle. The mistakes and the controversies linger. There were factual mistakes made by mainstream media as well as social media. We’ve gotten accustomed to those mistakes since the world of Twitter became a prime news source. And the website TMZ announced quickly, before any family could be notified, that Kobe Bryant was dead. TMZ has never played by the norms of traditional media. 

The Newspaper Guild statement protesting the suspension noted that it is the responsibility of journalists to publish the whole picture of individuals and institutions, including that of a negative nature. And that’s certainly true. Yet social media seems only to encourage and exacerbate overreaction. Negativity reigns in making the snap judgments. Threats, insults and harsh conclusions have become the standards in communication, especially in the aftermath of major news stories.

Mainstream news media, print and broadcast, have for some years encouraged reporters and editors to engage in social media. Social media is used to link to stories that can build audience and help alleviate the economic cataclysm that has struck most traditional news organizations, especially newspapers. That miscues and even disastrous communications occur when responsible journalists are encouraged to make snap communications over social media should be no surprise. 

We have now had the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable news for more than a generation. The idea that news was never complete and got on the air immediately with little or no vetting became the standard. Not only did reporting and journalism change, our very perception of the news changed. 

The same dramatic change is now taking place with social media and digital technology. The standards and ethics of the past no longer mean anything. News and reaction are even more instantaneous and less vetted than cable news. We interpret major news events through the brief sentences that often have truncated spellings, millennial-style initialisms and emojis, and horrible grammar.  Whatever we may think of these changes, they are here to stay. 

The sad state of media and Congress

The following op-ed was published in on Sept. 30, 2019.

Just as the 2020 presidential election has begun with Democratic candidate debates and the nation more polarized than ever, we add to the mix the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Just when we need excellent journalism the most, the nation’s news media are more incapable of informing and enlightening the public than at any time in modern history. It is a sad and in many respects tragic time for the nation’s news media, marginalized by the economics of the digital age as well as by government, politics, and even the biases of the American people.

The economic calamity that has befallen news media, especially newspapers, has been well documented. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 2008, there were 114,000 journalists working in U.S. newsrooms including print, broadcast, and digital. In 2018, that number was 86,000, a decline of 25 percent. That change was particularly harsh for newspapers, with the number of newsroom employees declining to 38,000 from 71,000, a decline of 47 percent. Once-great metro newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, and Atlanta have experienced dramatic decreases in circulation and news staffs. And frequently when news media have been forced to lay off employees, older and more experienced journalists are the ones out the door. Younger, less experienced and cheaper journalists fill the gaps. 

In generations past, we had feisty secondary newspapers in major markets. Today, most are closed. In the few markets where secondary newspapers exist, they are just hanging on with barebones news staffs. 

The University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism reported last year that almost 1,800 newspapers — 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies — have closed in the last 14 years. Many of the closures occurred in small towns and rural areas creating what university researchers call  “news deserts,” areas where people had no access to information about local and civic news.

Local television news has become more trivialized as viewership continues to decline. Network morning news programs are more devoted to breezy and brief news coverage with more emphasis on celebrity news and promotion of the prime-time lineup, especially programs such as “The Bachelorette” and “Love Island.” 

The political damage that has been done to news media can’t be underestimated. President Trump has consistent applause lines in referring to journalists as “enemies of the people” and noting “fake news.” Both Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made changes to the First Amendment part of their campaigns in 2016. Trump proposed making it easier for public figures to sue media for damages, presumably eliminating the historic protections in the landmark Supreme Court decision in Times v. Sullivan in 1964. Clinton bought into the notion of changes that might overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Neither proposal had any chance of becoming reality, of course, but playing to the political base is now more important than discussions of substantive issues. The fact that major political candidates and the dominant political parties are even discussing First Amendment changes shows how little regard exists for the protections and rights considered a foundation of our liberty. Not to mention a lack of respect for the role of the press as a check on government.

But the threats to the free flow of information and access to government didn’t begin in 2016. We shouldn’t forget that the Justice Department under Eric Holder in the Obama administration seized telephone records of the Associated Press in a leak investigation in 2013. It apparently escaped administration notice that the action violated agreements protecting journalists published by the Justice Department in the 1970s.

Even earlier, the USA Patriot Act, passed within weeks of the terrorist attacks in 2001, closed off thousands of documents that had customarily been accessible, including many online. The act also provided government with a major loophole for “national security” that made it acceptable for government agencies to deny open records requests. Many state legislatures followed suit in creating new exemptions for security. 

All of us appreciate government actions to keep us safe. But many journalists and First Amendment advocates found that the federal Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, became virtually useless. The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration set records for refusals to the media and the public for information and also set records in tax money spent defending lawsuits over the refusals.

The track record for the Trump administration is no better and, in many cases, worse. Trump has even broken with tradition in refusing to release his tax returns. Transparency in the Trump White House seems more or less limited to opinions expressed on Twitter. 

Overall trust in the nation’s news media remains low, according to recent Gallup polling that  has tracked the confidence level since 1972. Only 41 percent of people surveyed have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in news media to report events fairly and accurately. When political views are considered, the data are even more troubling. Among Democrats, 69 percent have confidence in the news media; among Republicans, only 15 percent have confidence. 

The “echo chamber” effect of news consumption has also been made clear in polling by various organizations. Conservatives have their news sources, and liberals have theirs. Watching the same story on Fox News and CNN is often like watching news from two different planets. We seem to want only news that confirms what we believe.

Congress fares even worse than the news media in polling of confidence levels. As the impeachment process focuses on the House, Americans are sure to have even more sharply divided opinions about government and the news media. The charges that President Trump asked a foreign government to investigate a political opponent are serious and deserve serious consideration from the Congress and serious, factual reporting from the nation’s news media. Don’t count on the public having much confidence in either. 

Honor servir como presidente de CLAEP

Ha sido un gran honor servir como president de CLAEP, el consejo de acreditación para las escuelas en periodismo y comunicación en América Latina. Aquí es el texto de mi discurso final:


Abril 15,16 y 17 de 2018

Quito, Campus Universidad de Los Hemisferios

Gracias a todos ustedes por asistir a este octavo encuentro de escuelas de periodismo y comunicación de América Latina, acreditadas por CLAEP.

Debo un agradecimiento especial a la Universidad de los Hemisferios en Quito, al Dr. Daniel López y a todo su equipo de trabajo, por su inestimable apoyo  y por abrir las puertas de su casa para sede de este encuentro. También quiero agradecer la colaboración de la escuela de Comunicación de la Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja.

Antes de nada, quiero mencionar lamentablemente el asesinato de tres personas en el área de la frontera con Ecuador y Colombia. Me refiero al periodista Javier Ortega, al fotógrafo Paúl Rivas y el conductor Efraín Segarra de El Comercio de Quito. Personalmente les envío mis más sinceras condolencias a mis colegas en El Comercio y especialmente a las familias y muchos queridos amigos de los tres.  La Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, en reunión de medio año en Medellín, Colombia, ha hecho una condena muy fuerte. Hace muchos años, Ecuador ha sido un país sin violencia contra periodistas. Ojalá que este acto de violencia no sea un cambio para el futuro.

Mis colegas, nos encontramos en un momento de grandes cambios y retos en la educación en periodismo y comunicación. Nunca hubo más necesidad de considerar cuidadosamente cómo enseñamos y qué enseñamos a nuestros estudiantes. Estamos en un momento de transición en los medios de comunicación muy distinta de cualquier otra en nuestra historia.

El populismo en todo el mundo ha cambiado el panorama político. Veo el cambio en Europa, pero especialmente en Inglaterra y su transición con Brexit. Los retos políticos y los cambios grandes están ocurriendo en muchos países de América Latina, incluso aquí en Ecuador. Como ustedes saben, estamos pasando por un momento especialmente difícil en los Estados Unidos. Además de los retos económicos que han afectado a todos los medios de comunicación, tenemos amenazas políticas específicas, así como la nueva acusación de noticias falsas, o fake news. La credibilidad de nuestros medios de comunicación nunca habían estado en duda antes. Los periodistas y los medios de comunicación nunca habían estado en baja estima por la opinión pública. Pero esto cambió.

En esta reunión, vamos a escuchar presentaciones sobre nuevas tecnologías, cómo monetizar el contenido en el Internet, las fuerzas del autoritarismo que limitan la libertad de expresión y la libertad de prensa, los cambios provocados por las redes sociales en el gobierno y el público, y, tal vez lo más importante, escucharemos a nuestros estudiantes.

Escucharemos informes sobre investigaciones académicas realizadas por nuestras universidades acreditadas. Quiero enfatizar la importancia de nuestra investigación y cómo nuestra investigación debe ser una parte integral de la enseñanza. Si hay estudiantes, profesores, investigación y docencia, entonces tendremos las características adecuadas de una universidad.

Este será el último discurso que haga en un encuentro de CLAEP, como su presidente.

Ha sido uno de los más altos honores de mi vida profesional servir como su presidente. Como ustedes saben,  anteriormente fui editor del Houston Chronicle y también presidente de la Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa en el 2000.

Recuerdo bien la formación de CLAEP y mi participación personal, que comenzó con una conferencia hemisférica de la SIP en Cantigny, Illinois en 1995. En 2003,  comencé la segunda parte de mi carrera profesional como profesor de periodismo en Southern Methodist University en Dallas, Texas. He trabajado más de 40 años en periodismo. Ha sido un honor y un privilegio trabajar todos los días de estos años en el periodismo.

Mañana, mi colega Aurellio Collado va a presentar un discurso de la clausura de este encuentro. Aurellio serå el proximo presidente de CLAEP. Aurellio ha trabajado hace muchos años en CLAEP. Yo observé Aurellio en muchas situaciones. Es un muy buen amigo, y les pido a ustedes para todo su apoyo en todos los proyectos que él está planeando. Él hablará mañana sobre el future de CLAEP.  Escuchen bien, por favor. Aurellio, te felicito, y te agradezo.

Los dejo con dos afirmaciones que creo con todo mi corazón.

1. Sin una prensa libre, la gente nunca será libre. La libertad de prensa está intrínsicamente ligada a la democracia, y la democracia nunca sobrevivirá a largo plazo sin una prensa libre.

2. Es común y popular criticar a nuestros jóvenes en todas partes del mundo. Hay dudas sobre su ambición de mejorar el mundo, escepticismo sobre su capacidad de aprender. Nuestros jóvenes son llamados perezosos e irresponsables. Mis colegas, no crean ni una palabra de esto. Si hay algo que es fake news en el mundo, es eso.

Aquí van las noticias reales para ustedes:  nuestros jóvenes, nuestros estudiantes, nuestros hijos y nuestros nietos, son más inteligentes y están mejor preparados para el mundo en el que vivirán. Enseñémosles bien y esperamos que vivamos lo suficiente para ver cómo estos jóvenes pueden cambiar el mundo.

Finalmente, gracias a ustedes por su apoyo y su participación durante estos años. Mi especial agradecimiento a Suzy Mitchell, quien como siempre, ha organizado esta reunión y que ha sido una gran amiga para mí. Desde mi corazón, Suzy, muchas gracias.

CLAEP va a crecer y será un gran éxito con el compromiso de la gente en este encuentro y otros que responderán al llamado de la excelencia en los próximos años.

Les deseo solo lo mejor. Godspeed to you all.


SMU Student Media Inc. to dissolve

The following column was published earlier today on

Student and alumni reaction has been strong and emotional regarding the closing of Student Media Company Inc. at Southern Methodist University. Formed almost 90 years ago, the independent company publishes the SMU Campus Weekly (formerly The Daily Campus) student newspaper and the Rotunda yearbook. Declining ad revenue is forcing the change. The concerns have centered on loss of independence and the possibility that free speech by students will be lost and that censorship by the SMU administration could be a factor in future publications.

The print newspaper will cease to exist with its last edition next month. The online version of the paper,, will continue under the supervision of the Division of Journalism. The future of the Rotunda is uncertain.

I am pleased by the reaction from students and alumni. It means that in our journalism classes, we have taught them the value of the First Amendment and the dangers of limiting press freedom. The historical lesson, from every part of the world, is that democracy suffers when freedom of expression is restricted.

I hope, too, that our students have learned the history of SMU, and some of the tradition of its Wesleyan founding. There is a seminal story frequently told by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry. It concerned an incident in the 1950s when Cold War tensions were running high and the fear of communism was palpable. Willis Tate was president of SMU, and unbeknownst to him, a student group had invited John Gates, an avowed Communist and former editor of the Daily Worker, to speak.  Tate only found out about the invitation by reading the SMU Daily Campus, and he was not pleased.

In his history of SMU titled From High on the Hilltop, Terry put it this way: “These were Joe McCarthy times and, in Dallas, John Birch times of ultraconservatism when SMU already seemed scary pinko to many.”  The “pinko” reference had been directed personally at President Tate by a columnist in The Dallas Morning News, and Tate had already been heavily criticized by the Ku Klux Klan for permitting the integration of SMU.  Once word circulated about Gates, civic groups were quick to criticize the event.  Even the SMU Mothers Club expressed opposition to the Gates appearance.

Tate withstood the firestorm. Gates spoke on campus. In recalling the incident years later, Tate said he believed it essential for a university to serve as a marketplace of ideas.  Tate is remembered for his firm commitment to academic freedom as well as free speech. Today the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series is one of SMU’s signature events.

Just in the last year, questions have been raised about speakers, some conservative, on the SMU campus. Yet speeches have been made, and the discourse has been civil. was first to report about the controversy to move an annual 9/11 display from in front of Dallas Hall. There was miscommunication involved, but it was a bad move and everyone knew it. President R. Gerald Turner apologized in a letter to the SMU community.

Economic realities have, sadly, affected virtually every news media organization in the United States. Student media operations at many universities have been forced to change. Every member of our journalism faculty at one point worked in professional news media. We are disheartened by the changes but committed to preserving freedom of the press in every facet of the classroom and newsroom.

I personally have spent the last 40 years working for press freedom issues in Latin America. While president of the Inter American Press Association in 2000, I led a press freedom forum in Bogotá, Colombia. The civil war and narcotrafficking at the time were taking the lives of dozens of journalists every year. I’ll never forget a question posed by a young newspaper reporter at the forum. “What kind of a choice is it,” he asked, “when you have to choose between a story you know is important and your life?”

The choices we are making on press freedom in the United States, and on every college campus, are fortunately not life threatening. But they are no less profound.


Returning professionalism to journalism

Bruce Sanford, partner at BakerHostetler in Washington, D.C., presented the 18th annual Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics last evening on the SMU campus. Bruce is one of the top First Amendment and media lawyers in the United States. The title of his lecture was “Trusting the Media in the Age of Trump.” A complete text of his lecture can be found here:  2017 Sammons Lecture in Media Ethics 

Bruce Sanford, partner at Baker Hostetler in Washington, D.C.

Bruce has represented the top news organizations in the United States on a variety of matters including libel defense and freedom of information. I have known him for many years, and he is a passionate and articulate voice for government transparency as well as professional and responsible news reporting. It was a challenging lecture for journalism students, and honestly a bit more optimistic that I am regarding the future of news media.  But he gave several excellent examples of innovative journalism that have created new avenues for accountability and integrity in news reporting.

We remain in a strange and difficult time in American politics, and the relationship between the government and the media has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. These changes have been chronicled in the mainstream press, academic work, and also in this blog. As Bruce noted in his lecture, confidence in the news media is at an all-time low. And often with good reason. “The sobering reality about the public’s relationship with the media is that, like an ugly divorce, there are contributions to the unhappiness from both sides,” he said. “As consumers of news, there are some things we bring to the dysfunction that only we can change.”

We didn’t reach this fragile place overnight, and no doubt both our political environment and the news media will require long-term repair. From the media standpoint, the digital age has wrought change no one could have imagined at the turn of the millennium. And the only certainty is that change will continue at a rapid pace. Thoughtful and reasoned consideration about a free press and its function in democracy will be needed from both our political class and our leaders in news media.

The Confederate monuments

The statue of Robert E. Lee and a Confederate soldier that has been removed from Lee Park in Dallas.

After a few months of debate, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Dallas has been removed. The monument was dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin Roosevelt. A national discussion is taking place over the placement of monuments honoring the Confederacy, of which Texas was a part, during the Civil War. What has taken place in Dallas strikes me as a bit precipitous and even strange in the sequence of events that preceded the removal.  On August 15, Mayor Mike Rawlings announced that he was appointing a task force that would issue a report within 90 days on what to do with the Confederate monuments in the city. In addition to the Lee statue, there is a Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas. Yet strangely, only days after the announcement of the task force, Rawlings made a dramatic pivot, and after a 13-1 City Council vote and various stops and starts, the statue has been removed. The removal came only a month after Rawlings announced the task force which, apparently, was never really involved in the process.  (One of the delays in the process occurred when a crane to be used in the removal was involved in a fatal traffic accident.) Now, in addition to ongoing consideration about the Confederate War Memorial, there is discussion on what to name the park as well as the possible renaming of streets in the city that bear the names of Confederate soldiers.

No doubt part of the rush occurred after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a Lee statue there. The national debate is a discussion worth having, so long as it’s a discussion and not hysteria, which unfortunately seems to have developed. For its part, The Dallas Morning News editorial page has been strongly supportive of the removal of the monuments. After the council’s initial decision to remove Lee’s statue, the  paper wrote an editorial strongly supportive of the decision, then updated the piece to express disappointment that a federal judge had intervened. (That intervention lasted only a day.) The paper’s editorial page somehow makes a distinction on Confederate symbols. In another editorial, the paper said that a decision by the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park to remove the six flags that had flown over Texas was a mistake. One of the flags, of course, is a Confederate flag that many, including myself, regard as offensive when used as a display. The paper said that the display of the flags represented historical fact, not a tribute. Someone needs to explain that distinction to me.

My personal opinion is that if a community wants to remove Confederate monuments, they should be removed. Thoughtful consideration and discussion need to occur, and if there are clear reasons and strong sentiment to remove the monuments, so be it. National polling indicates that a majority want to keep them. But it would seem to me that the monuments should be considered on a case-by-case basis. I have seen no real polling specific to Dallas except for an unscientific texting poll by one of the television stations (with more than 80 percent saying the monuments should remain), but I suspect the majority in Dallas would like for the monuments to remain. For this reason, I believe the mayor and the council acted way too quickly. One thing is for certain: The Lee monument will never be returned to public space in the park. At this time, it’s not certain where the statue will end up.

I think I understand, and can agree with a certain sentiment, dealing with the offensive nature of some of the monuments. Interpreting the presence of such monuments in public space as a vestige of support for slavery can be understood.  I fear many of the people protesting the Robert E. Lee statue know little about who the man was. I would be encouraged to know that everyone understood Lee’s reluctance for war, as well as his record of reconciliation after the war. None of that seems to matter. And more and more, there is no national discussion. There is only shouting and anger. A lot of the anger, and perhaps some of the impetus for removal of the monuments, seems fueled by people who are still mad that Donald Trump was elected president. (Advice to those mad about Trump: Get out and work to develop other candidates, including at the state level, who can win elections. Honestly, I’m not sure I see that happening. But that’s a blog item for another day.)

For some time, I’ve had two absolute limits on the removal of Confederate monuments. We shouldn’t remove monuments from historic battlefield sites. The National Park Service has wisely announced that Confederate monuments, including a statue of Lee, will not be removed from the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. And we should never remove monuments related to cemeteries or in any way disrespect the graves of Confederate soldiers. (For guidance on this subject, see the graves of almost 500 soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany maintained with dignity and respect by the British in the Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy, France.)

The Confederate War Memorial near City Hall is more problematic because it’s a 60-foot-tall column topped by a statute of a Confederate soldier. Moving it will be difficult, and finding a permanent place to house the monument could prove even more difficult.  The initial estimates on the cost of moving the Lee statue were about $500,000. Higher costs will no doubt be involved with the Confederate War Memorial.

I have never been certain what is really being accomplished by moving the monuments. The racial issues that have plagued this country since its founding won’t be going away. If removal of the monuments would help even incrementally, I would say that the process and the costs will have been worth it. I also wonder whether there will be a political price to be paid by Rawlings and certain members of the City Council. I have a suspicion that Rawlings and some of the council who voted to remove the Lee statue so quickly didn’t fully understand public sentiment. And I have no problem with Rawlings pushing to move the monuments. I do have a problem with announcing a task force to study the issue for 90 days, then abruptly deciding that the Lee monument should be moved. Let me be clear that I think very highly of Rawlings as a person and as a mayor. I think he has led Dallas very well. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think elected officials should do what they say.

Now there’s a discussion to change the names of a number of Dallas Independent School District schools. Among the famous people “requiring further study” as being appropriate for school names are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Sam Houston. These are in addition to those schools named for Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, William L. Cabell, and Stonewall Jackson.

I don’t know where it goes from here. I only hope that requiring further study produces more thoughtful input and response than was given the removal of the Lee statue.

Welcome First Amendment decisions

Whatever one thinks of the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a rare consensus emerging to protect free speech. Two court decisions this week highlight this important protection of the First Amendment. The first decision came in favor of an Asian rock group that attempted to trademark the name Slants. The group challenged the U.S. Patent and Trademark office because of a law against trademarks that disparage people or groups.  The leader of the group, Simon Tam, said that the group was trying to reclaim the slur against Asians as a point of pride. The group lost in the first legal rounds. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by the court’s liberal wing, but all justices agreed on the basic decision that the law infringed on free speech.

The court was also unanimous in striking down a North Carolina law that prohibited sex offenders from using social media websites on which they might come into contact with potential targets. Kennedy wrote that the law was much too broad and “unprecedented” in limiting the scope of First Amendment speech. The court noted that the law prevented sex offenders from engaging in public discourse and using websites that might lead to employment. It’s obviously difficult to find sympathy with sex offenders, and several of the justices noted that much narrower laws limiting sex offenders’ access to social media might withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The first case seems to lend broad support to the ongoing controversy of the Washington Redskins. The NFL team has been pressured to change the mascot of the team because the term is widely considered offensive. Team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement that he was thrilled, and “Hail to the Redskins.”

Even some conservatives have agreed that the term Redskins is offensive, and is different in its characterization than other similar terms, “Chiefs,” as in those in Kansas City, and “Braves,” as in Atlanta. Numerous college and high school sports teams have been pressured into changing mascot names. Some of the changes perhaps have been justified; others, sadly, have simply been caving to the pressure of political correctness. I agree that the origin of the term “Redskins” leads one to the conclusion that the term is disparaging and offensive. So be it. Do we really want government bureaucrats making that determination? If the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the right to be offensive, and, yes, even hateful. We are seeing appalling attempts by certain groups on the left to limit free speech and to place boundaries on robust dialogue. The court’s decisions this week, especially the first regarding offensive trademarks, are a welcome affirmation that the First Amendment still stands for free speech.

More sad news from college campuses

News reports over the past weekend detailed a decision by officials at Texas Southern University in Houston to revoke an invitation for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn to speak at commencement. The action came after a petition signed by 850 people protested his appearance. TSU is a historically black university established in 1927.

This represents another sad chapter in which a university decides on a speaker based solely on political perspective. The record of universities either revoking an invitation to speak or having students shout down unpopular speakers in protest continues to grow.  It is tragic that university administrations continue to allow and sometimes even support such appalling intolerance of free speech.  The petition against Cornyn specifically cited his confirmation votes for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. If there’s a difference of opinion, fair enough. Differing opinions can be expressed in a civil manner.  Each semester I teach my ethics students that one of the many brilliant concepts our Founders adopted was the marketplace of ideas, generally credited to the British poet John Milton.  We are gradually losing awareness of that founding principle.

For my money, John Cornyn is a pretty good guy. He had a solid record as attorney general in Texas. He was reasoned in his opinions, and he was quite supportive of open government, including open records and open meetings. There are plenty of extremists in the GOP camp, just as there are extremists on the Democratic side.  John Cornyn isn’t an extremist. He’s now named on the short list of those President Trump is considering to replace fired FBI Director James Comey. Truthfully, Cornyn would be an excellent choice. But I would actually prefer that he continue his leadership role representing Texas in the United States Senate.

Ethics, AP and the Nazis

The Washington Post has done some fascinating reporting on a secret agreement made between the Associated Press and Nazi Germany in 1941. The agreement allowed for photographs by German photographers to be used by the AP and distributed as a part of its regular photo service to AP member news organizations. It raises old and difficult questions about ethics. The AP says that it did nothing to compromise its independence as a news organization. And yet the propaganda effects of some of the photographs are obvious. It is always difficult to make assessments on such matters more than 70 years after the fact. The AP was of course charged with obtaining news and photographs about world events. And yet by 1941, the world pretty much knew of the tyranny and ultimate ambition of Adolf Hitler, even if the full scope of the Holocaust was not widely known. I have always respected the AP and, during my time as an editor, gave it my full support. Even understanding the difficulty in trying to make the correct assessments on such an agreement in 1941, I am bothered to learn of it today.