The Freedom of Silence

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The First Amendment to the U.S. constitution states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. With this freedom of speech also comes the freedom to not say anything at all. But with silence, accuracy and trust suffer.

Transparency is something toward which I have always strived, whether it is in my personal relationships or at work. A certain air of willingness towards truth and speaking out is something I try to create in my life. In becoming the editor of the Torch this year, however, I have begun to notice more often than not people I’ve interacted with do not share this same idea. Instead I have discovered a layer of unnecessary secrecy, even when asking the most basic of questions, that hides behind the phrase “No comment.”

A person’s reason for refusing to comment can come from personal values or even that of their administrators not allowing them to speak. I have heard many times that there is only one person in a group that is allowed to speak to the press due to a rule from higher-ups in that group. Even when asked a  basic question such as, “What should a student do in this type of situation?” they will still respond with, “We are not allowed to talk about that.” All over campus there are situations where people are “not allowed to talk about that,” but isn’t that a form of abridging the freedom of speech?

No matter what a person’s reasons for not speaking, a good journalist will continue to seek the truth despite this lack of comment. Without the knowledge that could have been provided by whoever it is that is unwilling to comment, pertinent information could be lost. As the editor of the Torch, I try to strive for accurate and balanced reporting in everything we publish, however, if we are denied important information it can make accuracy very difficult.

Another option is that the information is not found at all, leaving us with no choice but to publish that a certain involved party refused to comment. Refusing to speak on something that is in no way controversial shows a lack of trust. It can also create a feeling that there is something controversial to be found, since the truth will not be talked about. As Ben Rosner put in an article for PR Week, “The problem with “no comment” is that it really is a comment – sometimes the worst comment one can make. It may imply guilt where there is none. It can sound blasé or incompetent.”

We, as the media, are not out to incriminate people, yet there is obviously a lack of trust toward journalism. At the Torch we conduct our work under the Society of Professional Journalists’s code of ethics to ensure that we are doing our job correctly. The preamble to these ethics states, “Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

We need to start conversations with each other. We are all human and the only way we can communicate is through speech. If the public learns to trust the media, we can create a more trustworthy bond between journalists and the public, with a belief in transparency. The right to not speak is just as much a right as is the right to speak, but if you have nothing to hide, why hide it?