Losing Faith in Free Speech Has Consequences

U.S.-tied outlets are facing pressure in Eastern Europe as Washington wages war on foreign influence.

Stars, stripes, cameras.

Photographer: VOA/UIG via Getty Images

Recent attacks on U.S.-tied media outlets in Eastern Europe are part of an unsettling movement against liberal democracy. But they are also a reminder of the costs of America’s fading role as a defender of free speech across the world.

This week, Poland fined TVN, a station based there controlled by Tennessee-based Scripps Networks Interactive, for covering last year’s protests against governments attempt to limit press freedoms. Last month, the Hungarian government accused the U.S. of election meddling after the State Department announced a $700,000 grant for media organizations operating outside Budapest.

“What’s this, if not interference in the election campaign and in Hungary’s internal political processes?" Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, wondered.

Sound familiar? In January, the U.S. intelligence community published a report that said Russia's propaganda outlets, RT and Sputnik, helped Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton by covering him positively and her negatively. Last month, RT was forced to register as a foreign agent in the U.S., which prompted Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to issue a warning. “As soon as we see any efforts to limit our mass media, we will reciprocate immediately,” he said.

By singling out Russian outlets, U.S. politicians have -- intentionally or not -- given ammunition to governments looking to crack down on free speech in their own countries. It's hardly surprising that the chain reaction has begun with outlets tied to the U.S.

Do either of the European examples actually amount to foreign political meddling by the U.S.? It sure doesn’t look like it. But even if Scripps or the State Department happened to be pushing a U.S.-dictated agenda, their actions still wouldn't qualify as interference.

I believe in the way freedom of speech is defined in U.S. law. No, you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater, but you can deliver any message so long as people are not put in a position where they are compelled to respond. Poles did not suddenly lose their ability to make up their own minds about the protests after watching TVN. And Hungarians wouldn't vote against Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party just because a U.S.-funded local paper told them to do so. 

"Fear of foreign ideas, ideologies, and organizations is deeply entrenched in our First Amendment history and jurisprudence," Timothy Zick, a law professor at William & Mary Law School, wrote in a 2011 article. "All of these restrictions unduly interfere with cross-border information flow and are based upon the provincial notions that citizens have no legitimate interest in participating in global political dialogue, that all foreign propaganda is dangerous, and that citizens need to be paternalistically shielded from their own government’s propaganda."

This provincialism results in a lack of legal clarity on whether foreigners are entitled to First Amendment protections in the U.S. It also raises the opposite question: Are U.S. citizens and U.S.-owned or -funded news organizations entitled to First Amendment protections abroad? 

Zick's suggestion was to move toward a more cosmopolitan interpretation of free speech protection. He sought to reinterpret the 1965 Lamont v. Postmaster General ruling, which struck down a requirement that Americans file an application to receive foreign propaganda. Applied more broadly, the ruling could be interpreted to mean that the marketplace of ideas can no longer be limited to any given country's territory. The opposite is happening now. Influential forces in the U.S. are seeking to redefine foreign speech, such as Russian government-funded propaganda, as a danger to democracy.

Granted, that position remains far less extreme than Putin's banning of foreign media ownership in 2014, which triggered the fire sale of a newspaper I edited with funding from U.K.'s Pearson and U.S.-based Dow Jones. But the U.S. position on foreign propaganda allows too much room for illiberal states to treat U.S. media organizations -- whether government funded or private -- as if they were foreign agents of influence. The Polish and Hungarian governments' message to the U.S. is the same as the U.S. message to Russia. It's a worrisome area of consensus for any country that cherishes free speech.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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