RTNDA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force today expressed concern about the safety of journalists in the U.S., following the guilty plea and light sentence for Representative-Elect Greg Gianforte (R-MT) in a misdemeanor assault case, which charged him with physically attacking a reporter last month.
Gianforte entered his guilty plea in Gallatin County Justice Court this morning for the May 24 assault on The Guardian political reporter Ben Jacobs, who, according to witnesses, was “body-slammed” to the ground and punched by Gianforte as Jacobs attempted to ask him a question in the candidate’s campaign headquarters.
A judge handed Gianforte a six-month deferred jail term, meaning he will spend little, if any, time behind bars. He was also ordered to pay $358 in fines and fees, perform 40 hours of community service prior to November 28, and attend 20 hours of anger management counseling. His attorney said Gianforte had also paid Jacobs $4464.97 in restitution as part of the criminal case.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, if Gianforte does not violate the terms of his deferred jail sentence, his attorneys will be able to request the conviction be erased from the incoming congressman’s record after six months.
Gianforte recently apologized to Jacobs and pledged to donate $50 thousand to a non-profit journalism organization. Jacobs accepted the apology. However, last week, McClatchy Newspapers reported that some Republican political strategists are urging the party’s 2018 candidates to conduct anti-media campaigns as a way to energize their supporters.
“It is concerning, to say the least, that a public figure, or anyone, in Montana, or anywhere else, can physically assault a reporter for merely asking questions on behalf of the public and then receive a light sentence,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director, who spearheads the Task Force. “We certainly wouldn’t want someone to receive harsher punishment for assaulting reporters than they would for assaulting anyone else, but in this case, the victim of the assault, who just so happened to be a reporter, was actually injured.”
“It is even more disheartening that the lesson some political strategists have reportedly learned from the Montana incident is that other Republican candidates should also wage war on the news media in an effort to attract more votes. In today’s highly charged political and ideological atmosphere, I genuinely worry about the safety of reporters in our country,” Shelley said.
RTDNA established its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force earlier this year to defend against each and every threat to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. It has documented several cases across the country in which journalists have been obstructed, harassed, arrested, and even assaulted simply for attempting to fulfill their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to serve the public.
“RTDNA and its Voice of the First Amendment Task Force do not take any side in any political campaign or issue,” said Sheryl Worsley, Task Force co-chair. “However, we won’t just stand by when anyone portrays us as the ‘enemy of the people.’ That’s a false narrative being pushed to further a political agenda. Critical truth sometimes doesn’t feel very good to the scrutinized, but that doesn’t make it ‘fake news’,” Worsley said.
News organizations and others wishing to support the Voice of the First Amendment Task Force are urged to contact RTDNA at firstname.lastname@example.org. Broadcast and digital journalists, journalism educators, and journalism students are urged to become members of RTDNA to help support the efforts of RTDNA.