Journalists are continuing to fight for their right under the First Amendment to cover events in communities as small as Roundup to as large as Los Angeles. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Courts have interpreted the first amendment’s limitations to apply to government at all levels from school boards right up to city, county, state and federal government.
Yet, more than 200 years after the Constitution was ratified, governmental entities, law enforcement and now private militias or vigilante groups are still trying to prevent reporters from doing their jobs. Just look at a few key happenings from last week:
•On Sept. 10, the Roundup High School athletic director and superintendent prevented Jonathan McNiven, the owner of the Yellowstone County News weekly newspaper and of a new radio station in Huntley, from covering a high school volleyball match. The superintendent said that McNiven would not be allowed in the gym because of space limitations under the school’s COVID-19 restrictions and because the Montana High School Association and its member schools have the authority to approve or disapprove broadcast journalists from covering sporting events. This, despite the First Amendment’s prohibition on any government entity abridging the freedom of the press and Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive, early in the pandemic, that Montana’s print, broadcast and digital journalists are essential workers and are not included in closure directives.
•On Sept. 12, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrested a public-radio reporter as she covered protests that had erupted outside a hospital where two deputies were being treated for life-threatening gunshot wounds sustained in an apparent ambush. Deputies in riot gear, whose emotions may have been running understandably high, threw Josie Huang of KPCC radio, to the ground and handcuffed her. She was wearing a press identification badge on a lanyard and was filming as deputies arrested a protester, and clearly identified herself as a reporter for KPCC. She was cited for violating California’s obstruction law, despite the fact that her own video shows that she was well behind officers and was not interfering in their arrest of the protester. Huang’s listeners deserved to hear what she was reporting, not only about the condition of the injured police officers, but also about the unrest outside the hospital. Citizens need to know about a tragic attack on law officers and about how protesters responded. These are current events that cry out for coverage.
•On Sept. 13, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered reported that a group of armed men in Oregon stopped an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter in the Clackamas County community of Molalla on Sept. 10 and told them to leave the area immediately. The reporting team was covering the wildfires that have ravaged the state. Apparently, these folks figured that their Second Amendment rights overrode reporters’ First Amendment rights. It is inconceivable that people who are so loudly proclaiming their rights to carry guns under the Second Amendment would not respect reporters who are carrying their notebooks and broadcast gear — the tools that the First Amendment guarantees their right to use.
The First Amendment is the foundation of this country’s many civil liberties. Collectively, the ability to worship (or not to worship) in freedom, the right for individuals to speak their minds, the right of an independent press to cover the news of the day and the right of groups to peacefully assemble and ask the government to right wrongs are the only things that stand between this country and a dictatorship. Our founding fathers recognized that having a free press was vital to the survival of a representative form of government such as the U.S. has had for 244 years. This right becomes particularly vital when the press is covering people attempting to gather and petition the government to redress their grievances, namely police brutality and institutional racism.
When people with guns, either vigilantes or law enforcement officers, interfere with the freedom of the press, America is the loser. Even when school superintendents blatantly violate the constitution by preventing news media from covering high school events, America loses. From the smallest constitutional violation to the largest, every time a reporter is stopped from doing her job, American citizens are harmed, their ability to understand the world they are living in is compromised and their right to representative self-governance is impaired.
Yes. There are detractors of today’s media. There have always been people who are not happy with the way a newspaper, a radio station, a TV station or a website covers an issue. Sometimes those criticisms are valid and sometimes they are simply sour grapes from folks who did not want their corruption or incompetence reported. Journalists have to sort the criticisms out and learn to improve from the valid critiques and bravely carry on against the haters.
Today we speak out in support of our fellow journalists in Huntley, in Oregon, in California and all across our nation. We speak out in support of the hard-working men and women who are dedicated to informing their readers and viewers so that they, in turn, can be better citizens. In a world where anyone can repeat an unsubstantiated rumor and create a viral storm on social media, trained reporters are more important than ever. One of the first things new reporters are taught is to confirm every fact they use in their stories. Trained reporters do not retweet or share information from social media without first finding credible sources to attest to that information’s truth or falsity.
America needs an independent, free press today more than ever to push back against the unsubstantiated rumors and outright propaganda that masquerades as fact on social media, and America’s reporters need to know that they will be allowed to do their jobs, unfettered by government officials, law enforcement officers and armed vigilante citizen groups.