The First Amendment guarantees, among others, the freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Some types of speech such as false advertising have caused public and government concern resulting in the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, whose is to regulate commercial speech and protect the public trust and interest (Moore & Murray 2013). Commercial speech can be defined as speech done by an individual or company with the purpose of making a profit. At face value, the First Amendment does not protect commercial speech. However, there have been landmarks cases that resulted in extending protection to commercial speech. I’d like to talk about two cases Valentine v. Chrestensen and Jamison V. Texas (1943) which illustrate the shaping and changing of First Amendment protection for advertising and corporations. I will also present my ideas of how Jamison v. Texas has possibly encouraged, or not prohibited, predatory practices of televangelist in the creation of digital media messages for the public.
Summary of the following cases gathered from Moore and Murray (2012).
Valentine v. Chrestensen. At the time of this case in New York, it was not permissible for one to pass out advertising handbills, or pamphlets to the public. While Mr. Chrestensen passed handbills about his submarine that he wished to tour for an admission fee, he was informed by Police Commissioner Valentine that he was violating the ordinance. However, could distribute informational pamphlets only. Chrestensen printed a new pamphlet that displayed his criticism of the ban of his original handbill on one side while omitting the admission fee on the other. Chrestensen was arrested and his case ended up in the Supreme court which decision became the commercial speech doctrine. Frank (2013) explains that the doctrine specified that if the purpose of the speech was to make a profit then the protection of the First Amendment did not apply, and accompanying non-commercial speech lost its protection because of the commercial content. This case initially shaped the guidelines for what is protected by the First Amendment when it comes to commercial speech.
Jamison v. Texas. Or did it? In Texas, Ella Jamison was fined for passing out religious pamphlets advertising book for purchase in public, which violated the local ordinance. Her case also went to the Supreme court, which cited Valentine v. Chrestensen in their ruling that Ella’s First Amendment rights were infringed upon. The reason being because her content was religious and she was exercising her freedom of religion. The exception to commercial speech doctrine, in this case, was based on the assertion that the First Amendment was created to protect this activity of selling material that improves understanding of religion or raises money for religious purposes.
Creation of digital messages for the public
Frank (2013) state that scrutiny of commercial speech for false content or tendency to mislead could possibly be a factor in determining the extent of protection given to speech. Just as the Federal Trade Commission regulates and restricts commercial speech, could there also be an administrative entity that could oversee religious speech? Apparently, there is not. I would like to propose that, perhaps, the implications of Jamison v. Texas may, in fact, encourage predatory practices of televangelist of false speech and intent to mislead vulnerable audiences.
Last Week Tonight [LWT] (2016), hosted by John Oliver is a YouTube video which highlights several professional, established religious leaders, who, in my opinion take advantage of their religious freedom of speech to disseminate false and misleading messages in the digital space, which prey on the terminally ill and the poor for financial gain. LWT (2006) shows a clip for Mike Murdock trying to persuade those with credit card debt to use their faith and give a $1000 from their credit card to his ministry so that God will wipe out their debt. Another LWT (2006) clip reveals how a cancer patient forwent medical treatment and gave thousands of dollars to the Copeland ministry because she believed she would be healed by doing so, however, passed.
Freedom of speech protects religious speech, whether sincere or insincere and does not prohibit that which that seeks to make a profit from false and misleading claims. Though not regulated by law, religious leaders/figures/ministries, those especially with much influence, should adhere to high ethical standards. Using TARES to test their communication would help them produce better messages. As described in Patterson and Wilkins (2014, pp.58-59) they could ask if:
1. Their claims are verbally and visually truthful, authentic, or truly sincere
2. Respects the audience by “open and personal responsibility” for the message,
3. Considers equity or if the audience could correctly understand the message, and is
4. Socially responsible (among other criteria) “make money and improve human life, welfare, seriously and truthfully.”
Perhaps the parameters of Freedom of speech and religion and commercial speech are not so clear. The First Amendment allows freedom of speech and religion to individuals and well as entities such as organizations and corporations. To help protect the public, the Federal Trade Commission is in place to regulate and restrict commercial speech (or speech with the intent of making profits via purchasing a product) from false advertising. Valentine v. Chrestensen was a landmark case which decided that Freedom of speech did not protect commercial speech on public streets. However, when it came to inviting people to buy religious materials in public, Jamison v. Texas’s decision made an exception to the rule. When it comes to the creation digital communication for the public by professionals Jamison v. Texas causes me to think about how televangelists, especially those with large audiences, are able to get away with false and misleading claims that take advantage of vulnerable viewers. Even though there is not a Commission that oversees religious speech, religious leaders should still adhere to ethical standards, such as TARES, which can guide them in making money the right way.
LastWeekTonight (2016, August 16 ) Televangelists: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) [Video File] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg
Patterson, P., Wilkins, L. (2014) Media Ethics: Issues and cases 8th (ed). New York, NY:McGraw-Hill
Moore, R.L., Murray, M.D (2012) Media Law and Ethics (4th ed.)New York, N Y: Routledge
Featured image retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqIpY7zN5YQ