Journalists may find themselves at odds with their state governments when it comes to First Amendment rights for the press.
At “Stop Your State Legislature from Stifling Your Press Freedom” at Excellence in Journalism 2018, panel members David Reymann, Joel Campbell, Scott Sternberg, and moderator Sheryl Worsely discussed what actions journalists can take to protect their reporting rights. Each shared their own experience successfully dealing with legislation that limited journalistic freedom.
These experts’ insights all emphasized the most productive way to remove legislation that limits the rights of the press is to band together with other journalists to make your message clear and powerful.
First amendment attorney David Reymann talks about Utah HB 477–resulted in Utah Media Coalition and GRAMA watch. “If you work with lobbyists or work on the hill, find a senator or legislator who cares about public access.” @RTDNA #EIJ18— Lily Rain Cummings (@lilyrcummings) September 29, 2018
“[The State Legislature] can do a lot of damage if [journalists] don’t pay attention,” Worsley, Director of Audience Development at Bonneville Salt Lake and RTDNA’s Region 3 Director, warned. She also added that if journalists let pieces of legislation pass without covering them or spreading information about the negative consequences, “it will limit our jobs.” Both professional and student journalists need to constantly check their school, local, and state governments for legislation that poses a threat to the free press.
“The media mobilized and actually covered this fight and that’s what caused the change,” Reyman, a First Amendment Attorney based in Utah, said of his own state’s success fighting legislation that limited the public’s right to access public information.
When the state legislature in Utah passed a bill that limited the public’s “right to know,” the media throughout Utah joined forces to share information about the harm that would come from this piece of legislation. Front page stories and broadcast features from many different media groups got the word out and prompted the public to protest. Ultimately, this attention to the issue resulted in the successful repeal of the bill.
Making the public aware of the issues can urge government leaders and people on both sides of the political spectrum to change potentially harmful legislation. As these panel members learned from their own experience, wanting transparency in government is important to every type of American across the political spectrum.
As for the government officials who push these bills through? Reymann said “legislatures don’t like bad press.” If the public reacts with outrage after learning of a move to limit press access to information, oftentimes legislatures will change course.
“Keeping face with both sides is incredibly important if you’re going to be an advocate,” Sternberg, general counsel to the Louisiana Press Association, added, saying he regularly engages with state legislators on Twitter.
The panel members’ advice to journalists who have problems obtaining information that they believe they have a legal right to access is to call a lawyer.
Enlisting your local Society of Professional Journalists chapter or RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force can also help. With SPJ and RTDNA, you will make connections with other local journalists who can come together and fight to exercise your reporting rights. Campbell, a past president of the Utah Headliners and Associate Professor at the Brigham Young University School of Communications, mentioned SPLC.org, the website for the Student Press Law Center, as a great online resource for student journalists dealing with these same issues.
It is important to remember that the best way to defend your reporting rights is to use your reporting rights. Action from the public and government will not come if no one knows how significant a threat a bill poses to press’s job to inform the people.
Ending the presentation with the powerful message of “journalists, unite!” served as a reminder that the press is stronger together.