While First Amendment activist and former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler will admit “the Internet is a wonderland,” he is also quick to call out the technology’s dark sides.
As part of the Belmont College of Law’s First Amendment speaker series, Seigenthaler lectured about the First Amendment and the changing media at the Massey Performing Arts Center Tuesday night.
Most of the lecture was centered around his personal experiences with the changing media and the double-edged sword he described the Internet as.
As Seigenthaler oversaw The Tennessean as its editor in the ‘70s, he said he began to sense the change happening in the world around him. He was being warned that within forty years, the future of news would be online.
He discussed how the Internet and computer has changed the world and placed it at our fingertips in a way the people who created the First Amendment never dreamed of. However, he said the freedom people had online also had their drawbacks.
“I want you to recognize that the Internet is a wonderland and that it also has a dark side,” said Seigenthaler.
That dark side is something the former Tennessean editor had experience dealing with.
In 2005, Seigenthaler was told by a friend to searched his name and to sue Wikipedia for libel based on the biography page accusing Seigenthaler of being a suspect in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of defecting to the Soviet Union.
While he was unable to convince the user-created online encyclopedia to name the anonymous author of the false information, Segenthaler did write an article in USA Today explaining why Wikipedia was an unreliable resource for accurate information.
“Within 24 hours, thousands of people had contacted me who had also suffered from online false libels,” said Seigenthaler.
While Seigenthaler didn’t sue Wikipedia or the post’s author, other public figures wrongly accused through similar sites were unable to sue because of Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act that states that information service providers are not broadcasters of information and are therefore protected from libel suits.
He told the audience if any reform could happen to the law though, it would have to fully support the First Amendment he fought decades for.
“Is there a way to protect against the abuse of the written world with the existence of Section 230?” said Seigenthaler. “I am an absolutist, but I do believe that we need to use the First Amendment right to condemn those who abuse those rights.”