Freedom of speech is one of the rights that American citizens are most inclined to defend. We don’t take it for granted, and the right presents itself everywhere. Freedom of speech is the reason why there are numerous different news stations, the reason why opposing viewpoints are permitted in this country.
But freedom of speech is also the reason why independent research is often necessary to understand current events, and the reason why you can’t trust every piece of information that gets posted on the internet.
Although freedom of speech is highly valued in American society, there are some laws that place restrictions on the extent to which it can be employed. In legal terms, this is known as libel, slander, or defamation. The purpose of these laws is to ensure that the freedom of speech is not abused, and protecting individuals physically or financially from harm.
Sometimes however, these laws muddy the true meaning of free speech. How can free speech be free, in the true sense of the word, if there are restrictions on it? This issue presented itself in a very public way, just a week ago.
Last week, a satirical newspaper the Onion, sparked a panic in Washington, leaving some to ponder that question. The article, in breaking news fashion, spoofed the American Congress, joking that Republican party members had taken civilian children hostage at gunpoint to use as mules in political negotiations.
Despite the fact that the Onion is widely known for satirizing current events, the article was taken literally, leading to a major fiasco on Capitol Hill. Officials promptly issued statements to assure citizens that the story was false, and the Speaker of the House John Boehner was not holding children hostage.
Now, the Onion is in hot water with Washington police, alongside the integrity of free speech.
When debate started to boil up over this controversy, the first thought that popped into my head was, “Wasn’t this article from the Onion?” The article was in poor taste; I’ll be the first to admit that. Satire or not, holding children at gunpoint is not exactly my idea of comedy.
A major source of contention was the fake video clip that accompanied the article. The video is only a few short seconds, but features voiceovers of Republican officials discussing their hostages, and finishes off with a gunshot. The video, coupled with claims that the Speaker of the House held “[a] serrated switchblade to one of the fourth-grader’s throats,” makes for a distasteful article.
Given the source of the article however, it is outrageous that the information was taken seriously. The Onion is not known for its journalistic integrity, and if Americans are now considering it as their news source, then we have bigger issues than the potentiality of defamation.
The Onion is currently subject to an investigation by the Capitol Police over the hostage article.
The investigation, however, is wholly unnecessary. The entire article was based on false, fabricated information. If the Onion were a news source, like CNN, then I might be telling a different story.
But the Onion is not a news source. It could be more accurately described as elaborate joking.
Instead of being condemned, the Onion should be applauded for its outspokenness. This fake newspaper should be a symbol of just how valuable the freedom of speech can be.
Do some reading on the Onion website, and it will become readily apparent that the articles are not intended to be taken seriously. This controversy should not be focused on whether or not the Onion went past the limits of free speech. It should be focused on the responsibility of Americans to be informed and be wary of their news sources.
For those of us that enjoy our right to the freedom of speech, a close eye should be kept on this story.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Taryne Tosetti at Taryne.email@example.com.