A cherished freedom in our country is, I believe, becoming one of our greatest dangers: our highly regarded, lawfully protected freedom of speech.

As a reporter most of my adult life, I’ve been in several fracases … in court and out … dealing with free speech, always the devout defender even if I disagreed with the particular speech. Many gray haired professional journalists have had similar bouts with an individual, a company or government agency trying to stop them from publishing or trying to nail them for having done so. Comes with the territory if you’re serious about what you do and you do it long enough.

Traditionally, courts have been staunch partners defending speech and those who practice the craft. In my experience, limited instances of decisions going against a reporter involved speech so blatantly libelous or facts so obviously wrong it took little judicial intelligence to warrant punishment.

The very real danger I see now is the Internet and its anonymous nature making it nearly impossible to identify a “reporter” or source so libel, slander and other defaming information can be stopped and justice applied.

Disinformation has been around for centuries. Two things make it more threatening now. One is ease of transmission; simply striking a key. The other is it can be untraceable, even by those who know how. A source can be anyplace in the world. Material can be routed through thousands of computers and networks. A verbal “bomb” can be created anywhere, then put in the system for later “detonation.”

Hardly a week goes by I don’t hit “delete” a dozen times to stop the spread of baseless, defamatory e-mails. That’s not because I’m the target for such road apples. My correspondents are as typical as yours. Good people. I destroy some of the trash in my inbox because it’s false, libelous, misleading, racist, or … well, you fill in the blank. You’ve seen it.

Usually none of this stuff originated with those who sent it to me. They merely passed along information new to them, wanting to share their experience. Normally, I appreciate the effort, look at what they sent and shovel it along to others with whom I regularly correspond. Most of us do.

But the volume of libelous, racist and baseless information is increasing, much of it directed against the president and members of congress or national policy. A lot of it quotes “reliable sources” and some even looks authentic. Some will say “this was checked on Snopes” as if that adds automatic credibility.

Sometimes, you’ll find an accompanying official-looking news release or “YouTube” clip. Sometimes foreign newspapers or government bodies are used as sources or a new book or speech by an “authority.” On checking, many times, phony.

Part of the problem is too many otherwise innocent people getting information about their world from too few sources. Many stay with those telling them what they want to hear, using information confirming what’s already believed and reinforcing prejudices with bad information because they don’t get other input with which to make an informed judgment.

So when something flies into the inbox, it may be true. Or specious, slanderous or false. But, with limited frame of reference to contradict, it’s believed and we want our friends to see it so we send it to 10 other Internet addresses. One false e-mail is now 10. Each 10 can make it a hundred and that hundred a thousand. Within minutes!

The danger I’m seeing is some of this fabricated stuff is showing up in otherwise well-informed places … even mainline media. Recently, someone locally, articulate and well-read, told me a “fact” I had previously checked and found baseless. He later checked and apologized. But not everyone he’d told got the word. Now it’s out there. As fact.

Great as our strengths have been as a nation, we’re in the midst of nervous, unsettling, economic and socially perilous times. That’ll continue because many institutions and some of what we’ve known and trusted aren’t going to be the same. Ever. As familiar points of reference disappear we must get used to new ones. Doing so, as individuals we are ripe to fall victim to “facts” that aren’t so.

Faced with a daily hammering of misinformation and disinformation, truth and facts can be lost. Or warped. Well-meaning but uninformed people can innocently add to the successes of those who practice deceit professionally or others who don’t check things out. Or don’t care.

More than ever before, the practice of free speech is dependant on that speech being responsible and informed. The threat to it is primarily in our hands. Or our fingers.

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