Cut out the attacks on the press

Eric Robinson
By Eric P. Robinson, USC School of Journalism and Mass Communications

There was widespread condemnation when Hope Carpenter returned on March 31 to the Greenville church that she and her husband Ron founded in 1991 and expressed her support for the church’s new leaders, John and Aventer Gray.

“I love you Pastor John and Pastor Aventer,” she said at Relentless Church’s 8:30 a.m. service. “I believe in you, I’m praying for you, I’m rooting for you.” Then, she added, “I cut people. I’ve got a knife right in that pocket book. Greenville News, come on. We done went through this. Alright. I’m still here and guess who else still gon’ be here?” Then she pointed to John and Aventer Gray, as John nodded. (Excerpted video of Carpenter’s excerpted comments are available at https://youtu.be/Wjub1kKs9oM; the entire service is at https://youtu.be/eYYzz77ztH4, with her full comments starting at the 9:30 mark.)

The Greenville News has published a number of stories about the church and its leaders over the years, including reports that John Gray purchased a $200,000 Lamborghini for Aventer, his television admission of having an “emotional affair,” and that the church purchased a $1.8 million home for the Grays.

The Grays later said through a spokeswoman that he did not expect Carpenter’s “I cut people” comment and apparent threat to The Greenville News. “While we believe Pastor Hope was joking, we completely understand how her comments could be received in today’s climate,” spokeswoman Holly Baird said in a written statement to the newspaper. “Neither our pastors or anyone in our leadership would agree with any type of communication that would encourage or incite violence against another individual or entity.”

Carpenter’s comment comes at a time when the media is under both rhetorical and literal attack.

The oratory, of course, has come mainly from the president and his administration. His attacks on the media, calling them “the enemy of the people,” and on what he deems “fake news” are a frequent feature of his speeches, and his tweets. And they have been mimicked by other government officials and by some of the presidents’ supporters, as well as leaders in other countries that do not have the legal protections for media that we have in the U.S.

In some instances, this has gone beyond rhetoric. Of course, the most severe of these was the murder of five workers at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland in June 2018. (Although, as I’ve noted, the shooter had his own personal grievances against the newspaper.) The Annapolis shooting made the United States tied with India as the fifth most deadly nation for journalists in 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Yet, even in this atmosphere, there have been no serious efforts to change the legal protections for journalism under the First Amendment, and the courts have continued to uphold them.

But the threats and violence have set a tone, and the climate in which Carpenter made her statement. It is possible that she did not literally mean to threaten The Greenville News and its staff. But in this era when rhetoric and violence against the media is all too real, even idle threats must be taken seriously, and condemned in the strongest words possible. That’s what freedom of speech and the First Amendment is all about.
 
Eric P. Robinson is an assistant professor at the USC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and is Of Counsel to Fenno Law in Charleston / Mount Pleasant, although any opinions are his own. He has worked in media law for more than 18 years, and is admitted to legal practice in New York and New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court. This column is for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice.

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