Thursday, October 29, 2009

1st Amendment Doesn't Allow Rulebreaking In Order To Report

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 the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It's important to remember that "the press" didn't just mean "newspapers" in the days of the Founders. It also included pamphleteers; indeed, the 1st Amendment provides for the freedom of the "printing press", not just the "news press". Bloggers are the 21st century pamphleteers, and the government can no more censor me than it could any news outlet.

But this freedom isn't without limits.

I don't support shield laws. The press is allowed to report without a censorious government, but reporters should be treated no differently before the law. If a judge says "tell", you tell or pay the consequences--perhaps you shouldn't have promised your source anonymity. Shield laws create two classes of citizens--one which is immune to a judge's order, and one that is not. As a modern-day pamphleteer, I doubt I'm covered by any state's shield law. The 1st Amendment is thus perverted.

Government can and does do things that impede news organizations. For example, it taxes them! Their buildings must meet the same building codes as other buildings. One could argue that such restrictions "abridge" the freedom of the press, but that argument would be specious. It would be akin to arguing that the government should provide the ink--as without it, the printing press is useless!

So while my interpretation of the 1st Amendment is expansive, it doesn't tolerate flimsy arguments that merely serve to cheapen it.

So I question whether this is a 1st Amendment issue or not. Did the students violate school policy, or did they not? If they did, they get in trouble. It doesn't matter if the policy is stupid or not, or if we support it or not. If they violated the policy, they must suffer the consequences, unreasonable feints to the 1st Amendment notwithstanding.

Two student journalists at James Madison University face judicial charges at the school after entering a dorm to get comments for a news story.

Tim Chapman, 21, of Chantilly, the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Breeze, and reporter Katie Hibson, 19, of Loudoun County, were charged by JMU's Office of Judicial Affairs with trespassing, disorderly conduct and noncompliance with an official request...

Don Egle, the school's public affairs director, said it was not an issue of journalists' rights but of school policy.

"This has nothing to do with what reporters are allowed to do or are able to do or who they're able to speak with or what they want to print," he said. "They had the right to ask anybody any question outside of the building."

Egle said policy requires that nonresidents of the dorm be accompanied by a resident and added that the judicial hearing would decide whether all rules had been followed.

Being a journalist is not a free pass to do whatever one wants to "get a story". Clearly, though, there's more to this story than what's reported at the link above, and it will be interesting to learn what new facts surface.


Rhymes With Right said...

In each case, though, they were invited guests of residents. That surely mitigates against charging them with anything.

Especially since I cannot imagine that the school has a "no gusts anywhere in the residence halls" policy.

And I say that as one who agrees with your point of view on shield laws and the limits of the First Amendment.

Darren said...

I missed that they were invited guests. The school would have to have some darn-crazy rules not to allow invited guests in the dorms.