Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Should mass media audiences have right to know whether content is fact or opinion?

Political protestor in 2012
(photo by Gabriel Saldaña CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr)
To protect the civil rights of the audience, radio and television providers in Mexico may be compelled to distinguish between fact and opinion, a minister of the First Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled in November 2021.

The decision by Minister Juan Luis González Alcántara Carrancá struck down a federal telecommunication reform that repealed the fact-opinion distinction, holding that the repeal violated the right of the audience to know the nature of the content it is receiving. (More at Observacom en español.)

It remains to be seen whether the minister's opinion will hold up, or how enforcement might work going forward. But the opinion points to some intriguing considerations as all liberal democracies debate their responses to the problems of misinformation and scarce objectivity in news media.

Approaching misinformation as a problem of audience rights rather than speaker rights is a compelling spin.

The approach is not unknown in U.S. telecommunication regulation, which is justified in part with reference to public ownership of the airwaves. As television transitioned from broadcast to cable, the public right to receive gained ground alongside the property rationale. Though these days, the whole enterprise of balkanized media regulation is constitutionally questionable.

Detaching the audience right from the medium to ground a general right to receive accurate information from mass media, apart from speaker rights, is, anyway, a bold further step. The debate in American free speech law over anonymity and compelled source disclosure in campaign finance, though, comes to mind.

The idea that fact and opinion can be distinguished, or should be distinguished, is an additionally intriguing idea.

It would be easy to conclude that the distinction is too hazardous to contemplate, chilling the practice of journalism for fear of perceived slant, invading the province of ethics, and threatening the vital tradition of the editorial page. The fuzzy identity of advocacy documentary puts the problem in focus, whether the subject to be tested is Hillary: The Movie (2008), the film at the heart of Citizens United, or the latest Michael Moore project.

At the same time, the "fact-opinion dichotomy" is an extant feature of our defamation law. We have developed tools to make the distinction, and we expose assertions of fact to greater potential liability than we do opinions.

Indeed, the Mexican fact-opinion distinction is not grounded in an effort to combat misinformation; rather, the notion grows out of advertising regulation, where the concept is familiar to American jurisprudence, too. Mexican regulators sought to protect consumers against surreptitious advertising strategies such as product placements and paid endorsements. The U.S. First Amendment similarly tolerates heightened government regulation of commercial speech in the interest of consumer protection.

In commentary on the Mexican case, Daniel Villanueva-Plasencia at Baker Mackenzie wonders at the implications if the fact-opinion regulatory distinction were to escape the confines of telecommunication and find its way to the internet, where social media influencers, among other content creators, would come within its purview.

I do not mean to suggest that compulsory fact-opinion labeling is constitutionally unproblematic, or even viable, in U.S. First Amendment law. I do suggest that an approach to the misinformation problem beginning with audience rights and compelled disclosure, that is, with more information rather than less, is a good starting point for discussion.

The case is Centro Litigio Estratégico para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos v. Presidente de la República, No. 1031/2019 (Sup. Ct. J. Nación 2021) (excerpt of opinion).

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