SAN DIEGO, September 13, 2011—First Amendment activists cheered the recent opinion out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit released on August 26, 2011, which ruled that a private citizen’s right to videotape police officers performing their duties in a public space is “unambiguously” protected by the First Amendment. (Glik v. Cunniffe, et al., No. 10-1764 (1st Cir. Aug. 26, 2011).
Boston resident Simon Glik witnessed three police officers making an arrest in 2007. Concerned that officers were using excessive force, he recorded the arrest with his cellphone. Officers confronted Glik and when he refused to stop videotaping the arrest, he was arrested.
Among the offenses he was charged with violating were Massachusetts’ wiretapping laws. Glik filed a civil rights action against the officers and the City of Boston for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights.
Glik’s First Amendment rights prevailed. Writing for the majority, Judge Kermit Lipez explained that the First Amendment not only prohibits establishing laws against freedom of speech, but also “encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information.” Citizens have the right to observe actions and proceedings and investigate the facts that foster the free reporting and discussion of government affairs. They also have the right to share what they learn with fellow citizens.
The Court of Appeals reminds us that these rights are not restricted to so-called “professional” journalists. Journalism is the product of citizens, and increasingly there is little importance placed on whether or not an individual draws a paycheck from a media organization to do so.
Judge Lipez offers an astute observation about the nature of journalism in the 21st century so vitally important as to be worth labeling profound. Judge Lipez acknowledged the revolutionary role of technology giving the “average” citizen the ability to gather and disseminate news as individuals:
“Moreover, changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders with a ready cell phone or digital camera rather than a traditional film crew, and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper.
“Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.” (Columnist italics added). The judge added, “News stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper.”
Hallelujah and pass the keyboard and the camera. Judge Lipiz gets it. The First Amendment wasn’t written to protect reporters. It was written to protect citizens in the form of the State from the federal government, AKA Congress.
Professional journalists are citizens. What we lost sight of in the United States is that journalists are first and foremost “average citizens,” acting on behalf of fellow average citizens. They are not a privileged class. With the exception of shield laws in 40 states, they are afforded no special rights under the Constitution beyond those enjoyed by every ordinary citizen.
As Judge Lipez states, being a journalist does not require a license or any particular training. We lost sight of this in the United States when journalists became celebrities.
Those who decry the demise of professional journalism have a point. We need people with the dedicated time and resources to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. There is wisdom in teaching people how to procure public records and bridge the gap from rumors to facts.
But professionalism is not determined by a paycheck. Journalists are not anointed in some way with special rights or powers, and we would all do well to remember this. It may pain them to think so, but journalists are no more or less intelligent than their audience.
With any right comes responsibility. Those presenting an accurate depiction of events must demonstrate above all a loyalty to journalistic truth, or any covenant with the audience over credibility becomes tainted. They must verify facts, put them into context, and disclose sources, methods and biases so the audience can engage in its own assessment process of the information. As NBC News reporter Chuck Todd has said, “Transparency is the new objectivity.”
The First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from restricting the freedom of speech, press, and religion, was created by our Founding Fathers to protect citizens from the tyranny of censored speech. What is vitally important is that is not be used to permit tyranny by one group of citizens (the professional media) over another to control who is afforded the privilege and respect of that speech.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
Copyright © 2011 by Falcon Valley Group
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.