WASHINGTON, May 30, 2013 ― Just when you thought it was safe to ignore Washington for the summer, more scandals and reports of government misconduct are circling. This time, the Justice Department has been caught having secretly subpoenaed the phone records of Associated Press reporters. In investigating a leak over a story on North Korea’s nuclear program, the department searched the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen and subpoenaed phone records of his cell phone, his work, and even his parents home.
As a result, lawmakers have begun to discuss a federal media shield law. Of course, any media shield act adopted would have a national security exception, and thus would not have been applicable in these particular situations. But, assuming we are not discussing national security issues (like global warming?), then who gets special protection under a media shield law?
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) asked some rather impertinent questions, “What is a journalist today in 2013? We know it’s someone that works for Fox or AP, but does it include a blogger? Does it include someone who is tweeting? Are these people journalists and entitled to constitutional protection?”
Bloggers, tweeters, columnists and average citizens are not entitled to constitutional protections for journalists.
The argument is that these types of writers are not breaking stories on matters of national importance. Of course, many counter that thanks to wire services and changes in journalism over the last several years, most “real journalists” are not, either. Many writers today pen columns sharing random thoughts and occasionally redistributing interesting news, like a tiny wire-service in suburbia.
However, what if local bloggers find a scandal in their hometown and blog it? What if the local media picks up that story? Are they then journalists? When the scandal blows over and they go back to blogging about failed garden attempts, do they transform into a non-journalist?
When do their rights and protections start and end?
The First Amendment is not selective. It does not apply only to certain types of people, it applies to actions. It reads, “The right of people 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.”
Exercising freedom of religion, speaking, printing and its modern day equivalent, assembling, and petitioning are all actions. Every citizen has the freedom to participate in those actions. Of course the Founders did not anticipate twitter, or blogs, or telephones, or any of the means we now use to communicate. They did not address the how of our acting, they just addressed the acting.
It does not matter if we blog, or circle petitions on Facebook, or get published in newspapers; our actions, not our professions, are protected by the First Amendment. Every American has as much right to speak as any other person in America, no matter what their job description is. It is worrisome that a United States Senator would think otherwise. It has a very “Some animals are more equal to others” sound about it.
If First Amendment rights are limited by profession, what other rights does the good senator think should be limited? What credentials do individuals need to be gifted from the government to have civil liberties protected? Since when did any elected official gain the power to place himself between American citizens and the rights the nation’s ultimate law, the Constitution, says we have?
Congress should not pass a media shield law or any law that gives certain groups of people different privileges than the average citizen. When we say we are a nation of laws not of men, we mean that all people are equal under the same law. When America gives media members, or elected officials, or anyone else more protection and rights than the rest of its citizens, it will be a nation of ruling classes, protected classes and schmucks who bow and scrape before them.
The media should not get special protections, but politicians should re-read the limits that have been set for them. “Congress shall make no law.” They can go on home and enjoy their summer and let us enjoy ours.
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