By Dr. Harold Pease
In a recent headlined story of the Los Angeles Times, “Bill to protect journalists clears Senate panel,” The Senate Judiciary Committee, in a 13-5 vote, proposed to forward Dianne Feinstein’s bill to limit 1st Amendment rights of bloggers. Although hailed as a protection for “real” journalists it allows the government to define such and establish criteria for those reporting on the government and other news events. Such has infuriated the younger generation who get most, if not all, of their news from websites and believe that anyone has the right to report any news that they witness. It also offends Constitutionalists who believe it to be a serious violation of the First Amendment.
Feinstein ostensibly targets bloggers who reveal national security information, which today is expanded to virtually anything negative of the government, but her example is “a 17-year old with his own website.” To get an emotional reaction, she links the 17-year old in possession of a “five dollar” website with Edward Snowden’s extraction of classified information, a most unrealistic scenario. Besides many believe Snowden’s whistle-blowing revelations justifiable because the federal government had gone far beyond acceptable limits when it recorded everyone’s email, Facebook and phone messages, which it still does.
At issue is whether the media shield laws, which most states have, apply to bloggers as well as journalists. This allows reporters, who report information that the government does not want disclosed, to be shielded from having to reveal their sources to the government. The Feinstein amendment to the federal Media Shield Law (itself constitutionally questionable) would limit the law’s protection only to “real reporters,” not alternative media types like bloggers.
Housed in the Feinstein bill were phrases “covered journalist” and “legitimate news-gathering activities,” obviously only “professional mainstream journalists”—criteria that could exempt even this column. Therein lies the problem. Who is a “legitimate” reporter and who will decide? And if this law were in place who would dare criticize the government? In a free country the government cannot be in charge of its own criticism.
To be an “approved journalist” S. 987, the Feinstein Amendment, requires such to meet one of the following criteria: one must work as a “salaried employee . . . for any continuous three-month period within the two years prior to the relevant date” or, have “substantially contributed . . . a significant number of articles . . . within two years prior to the relevant date” or worked as a “student journalist at an institution of higher education.” The effect is to control the media by controlling those who are the media.
Throughout world history tyrannical governments have attempted to control two things to preserve their power: information and weapons. Kings always fear negative information about their governance and work to eliminate such when possible; then weapon control is less needed. But when they fail to stop the dissemination of negative information weapon control, in our case gun control, becomes critically important to them. The more regimental a government becomes the greater their desire to restrict information and weapons. We are no different. It is no accident that the Bill of Rights identifies and removes these possibilities from the federal government altogether. Amendment I, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” and, Amendment II,“ . . . the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Sorry Senator Feinstein you cannot define the press, nor can you make law with respect to it, most certainly none that limits free press as is the effect of your bill. Many feel that the Internet and blogs are the only real free press that we have for exactly the reason that you wish to limit it—anyone can put anything they wish on it. Libel and slander laws still function to keep disclosures honest should they hurt the innocent. The defense of John Peter Zenger against libel charges in 1735 is often seen as the cornerstone of press freedom. He was found innocent when he railed against the corrupt colonial governor because it was the truth. Your legislation appears merely to be a veiled attempt to damage or end the free press. See video of her offering amendment in question at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bywtn9RIDRw