As more TV news reporters speak out about the explicit taunts hecklers hurl at them on public streets, the journalists face a major hurdle in ending the disruptive verbal attacks — the First Amendment.
Many of the 1,800 comments left on TheWrap’s recent analysis of the disturbing trend slammed the reporters for complaining, and defended the hecklers who yell “f— her right in the pu–y” into microphones as journalists deliver live reports. A recurring theme among commenters was that the pranksters are simply exercising their right to free speech.
“Courts have determined they absolutely have a right to utter that phrase in front of news cameras,” wrote one commenter.
Another added, “I have always been puzzled as to why the reporters believe they have some kind of magical protection.” While a third insisted, “It has to be considered free speech. Offensive language is the only language people try to restrict.”
But journalists and legal authorities say the right to behave crudely in public is beside the point.
“Of course I’m a proponent of free speech — I work in journalism,” NBC4 Southern California reporter Beverly White told TheWrap in an earlier interview. “My concern is just the rudeness factor. Your right to utter the most vile and disgusting thing you can think of has intersected with my right to be disgusted and offended by it.”
Emily Valdez, a general assignment reporter for ABC 10News in San Diego echoed a similar sentiment.
“People are allowed to do it, I’m not saying that. They can do whatever they want and say whatever they want,” Valdez told TheWrap. “What I’m saying is — what would your mother think? Are you really going to want that on YouTube in 20 years, when you’re going for your promotion?”
According to First Amendment attorney Lincoln Bandlow of Los Angeles firm Fox Rothschild LLP, there isn’t much of a solution to the problem, at least from a legal standpoint.
“Can they be punished in some way? Probably not,” Bandlow said. “The government can’t come down on them for jumping on the air live and saying something wrong. It’s not fighting words, or incitement or any of the other narrow categories of speech that can be punished under the First Amendment.”
Bandlow went on to explain, “You would have a First Amendment issue if somebody yells it on the air live and then the station gets fined by the FCC for allowing an obscenity on the air. Then maybe the station could come forward and say, ‘look, to punish us for this speech raises First Amendment issues.'”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department downplayed the taunts — saying making crude comments in public isn’t a crime.
“There is no recourse for grabbing a microphone or saying something obnoxious,” officer Jane Kim noted. “However, if they grab a reporter, it’s unlawful physical contact.”
As the officer explained, that unlawful contact could lead to a misdemeanor battery charge in many jurisdictions — but there’s one caveat. “The reporter would have to do a private person’s arrest
Attorney Bandlow believes another solution is to turn the cameras on the culprits, as Toronto “CityNews” reporter Shauna Hunt did, and
“One of the ‘remedies’ for this rude speech is to shame these people for it,” Bandlow said. “As has been recently seen, some employers, as it is their right, have fired people for this kind of behavior.”
Experts blame the explosion in explicit insults on misogyny, people mimicking stunt-based television shows and a desire among young people to gain notoriety through viral videos.
Sébastien Vuagnat, a Los Angeles-based freelance reporter-photographer for French TV networks France 24 and M6, thinks discontent with the media is also a factor.
“I think everywhere in the world, people are not really as impressed by the media as they used to be in the past,” Vuagnat noted. “I would say that ten years ago, 20 years ago, when you were doing a live report in the street, no one would disturb you. People would stop and watch, but they wouldn’t disturb you.” Now he says doing live shots on public streets “can be a nightmare.”
Whatever the reason for the explosion in “FHRITP” taunts, White says the pranksters have gone too far and free speech is no excuse.
“Just because you can say it doesn’t mean you should or that I should take it without complaint.”
Beatrice Verhoeven contributed to this report.