Seigenthaler will be recognized in a ceremony April 29.
Renowned journalist John Seigenthaler spoke Tuesday at the University of Tennessee, discussing the renaming of Nashville’s Shelby Street Bridge as Seigenthaler Bridge, among other topics
The change, passed by Metro Council on April 1, according to The Tennessean, recognizes Seigenthaler’s 29-year career as the top editor of the paper while also remembering the time the journalist saved a man from jumping off the same bridge.
Seigenthaler said he was “very proud” to receive such an honor, which will be bestowed in a ceremony on April 29.
The talk also came only weeks after Tennessee House Republicans pulled legislation condemning UT’s Sex Week, which took place in early March. The event includes education on venereal diseases, premarital pregnancy and is “LGBTQ-friendly,” according to the week’s website. House Republicans moved to suppress the week, calling it “outrageous.”
UT President Joe DiPietro and student leaders took the stance Sex Week is protected by the First Amendment, while Republican lawmakers sought to limit university spending in retaliation, according to the Knox News Sentinel.
As the founder of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, such an issue takes hold with someone like Seigenthaler. In a recent conversation with the Nashville Arts Magazine, he reacted to the issue.
Seigenthaler: “The internet is a wonder world at our fingertips, but it is flawed.”
“It’s tougher today to identify discrimination [in today’s world],” said Seigenthaler.
The whole world has changed because so many young people who previously would not come out of the closet now are out. I think the next big challenge is for this society to come to grips with the reality of where the next generation is.”
In today’s talk, to an audience heavily populated by students and faculty of the same university the state’s legislature sought to stifle, Seigenthaler hinted at such a point of contention.
“The only problems [with how we interpret the First Amendment right now] are those that restrict our ability to express ourselves,” said Seigenthaler.
He also fielded questions about the nature of the Internet as a means of communication in today’s world. As the world moves ever more into the “E world,” it becomes necessary to recognize the flawed nature of this form of communication.
Seigenthaler: “The only problems [with how we interpret the First Amendment right now] are those that restrict our ability to express ourselves
“I honestly believe that if most people can come to understand the downside and be aware of the trap [of the Internet],” said Seigenthaler, “in ten years more people will be aware that this is a flawed means of communication. The result will be better.”
This take on the Internet, or the “wonder world… way of the future,” is tempered by Seigenthaler’s experience with Wikipedia.
The journalist was administrative assistance to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the early 60’s. This fact was included in his Wikipedia biography—which also named Seigenthaler as a chief suspect in the murders of both Robert and President John F. Kennedy. The bio also claimed he defected to the Soviet Union when nothing could be proven against him. These falsities led Seigenthaler on a mission to right this “Internet character assassination.”
As a pallbearer at Robert Kennedy’s funeral in 1968, Seigenthaler was upset by these attacks on his reputation. He tried every investigative technique to get behind the damaging five-sentence bio, which he discovered in 2005.
Eventually, he called Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and requested the removal of the falsehoods. Wales called the words part of the “Internet democracy” and had them removed from the page, but not from the Internet entirely—they are still archived.
However, Wales did advise Seigenthaler to file a John Doe lawsuit against the Internet service provider of the perpetrator—BellSouth. Upon contacting the company, Seigenthaler was told it is against company policy to release the information.
The Communication Decency Act says “Online information service providers shall not, under this law, be treated as publishers or broadcasters,” according to Seigenthaler. This means if you’re an information service provider like Wikipedia, Google, AOL, etc., that you can’t be sued for libel, which allows for researchers to be misled.
Seigenthaler was falsely labeled the chief suspect in the murders of Robert and John F. Kennedy and accused of raping Jackie Kennedy by Wikipedia posters.
Rather than sue BellSouth for the identity of the guilty party and then sue that individual, Seigenthaler “knocked Wikipedia’s ass off in [a USA Today editorial].
“Within 24 hours, all hell broke loose,” said Seigenthaler.
He was flooded with messages from others reporting similar issues with Wikipedia. His profile was inundated with even more ludicrous accusations, including that he had raped First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Wales was forced to lock his page, preventing further malicious posts.
With the help of Daniel Brandt and his startup Wikipedia Watch, the initial mystery poster was uncovered. Wikipedia Watch tracked the IP of the poster to Rush Delivery, a company in Nashville. In December 2005, Brian Chase admitted to the post that spawned the whole controversy and had caused him to lose his job.
“I don’t get on Wikipedia much anymore,” said Seigenthaler.
A provision of the Communication Decency Act allows researchers to be misled, according to Seigenthaler.
John Seigenthaler, former publisher of The Tennessean, the first editorial director of USA Today, and now director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, speaks at the University of Tennessee at 1 p.m. Tune in right here for live coverage of the event!