Legislator Irritated By A Journalist Decides State's Government Should Start Regulating Journalism
from the a-Pravda-of-our-own dept
A Georgia politician — apparently tired of being questioned by uppity journalists — has decided the First Amendment shouldn’t apply in his state. James Salzer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the departing state rep, Andy Welch, has lobbed an unconstitutional bomb into the legislature on his way out the door.
A group of House Republican lawmakers filed legislation this week to create a state Journalism Ethics Board to develop “canons of ethics” for journalists in Georgia.
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, a lawyer who has expressed frustration with what he saw as bias from a TV reporter who asked him questions about legislation recently. He said he thinks the profession could benefit by setting ethical standards for all journalists to follow. Five other Republicans signed on to sponsor the bill.
The bill, which Welch announced along with his resignation from the General Assembly, would create an “independent” ethics board for journalists, which would then decide how journalists should behave. The board — consisting of a handful of journalists from different fields and a “retired professor of journalism who preferably taught journalism ethics” — would hand out sanctions, issue opinions, and possibly offer some form of journalism license (which would be voluntary, not mandatory).
The independence of the board would apparently be assured by the requirement that those assembling the board, as well as those sitting on the board, “shall not be employed by any federal government entity, any state government entity, or any local government entity during such member’s term of service on the board.”
Independent or not, the ethics board would be created by government mandate, which already poses Constitutional issues. It gets worse when other aspects of the proposed law are examined.
Supposedly, accreditation by the ethics board is “voluntary,” but the bill [PDF] says it’s pretty much mandatory if journalists want to be recognized as journalists by the state.
Develop a voluntary accreditation process in journalism ethics for journalists and news organizations that demonstrate compliance with the highest levels of professionalism and integrity in journalism which shall be approved and issued by the board. News organizations shall be accredited only if all journalists employed by the news organization are accredited…
This suggests state-ordained accreditation may be needed if journalists want to avail themselves of the state’s shield law. The shield law is already limited to traditional press outlets: print, television, and radio. This new “voluntary” accreditation program would allow the government to ostracize those already recognized by the shield law, as well as bloggers and independent journalists who won’t be part of this “voluntary” scheme.
But there’s more in the bill that threatens journalism in the state of Georgia. The law would also force news agencies to hand over a massive amount of information to anyone journalists speak to or interview. Here’s the AJC’s summary of the legislation’s demands:
If approved, the bill would also mandate that anyone interviewed by the media would be able to request and receive copies of photographs and audio and video recordings taken by reporters and photographers. Such copies would have to be provided free of cost, even though state and local governments are allowed to charge the public for copies of any documents it provides.
As is pointed out in the AJC article, this subjects private entities to a more rigorous standard than Georgia’s government is willing to apply to itself. The legislature is already exempt from most records requests and the government as a whole has a list of exemptions it can use to keep records out of requesters’ hands. There are no exemptions made for journalists, who could face civil penalties and lawsuits if they refuse to turn this information over to interviewees.
The timetable for releasing these records is extremely accelerated, at least when compared to the amount of time government agencies are given to respond to records requests.
The member of the media conducting the interview, the employer of the member of the media conducting the interview, the person making the audio or video recording of the interview or taking photographs in connection with the interview, or the media outlet that runs a story relying on such interview or the audio or video recording of such interview or photographs taken in connection with such interview shall provide a copy of all responsive items in their possession within three business days after receiving the request by sending such items by email or by statutory overnight delivery, at the option of the individual making the request. If no method is stated by the individual making such request, the responsive items shall be delivered by statutory overnight delivery.
The proposal is so awful state First Amendment advocates thought it was an April Fool’s joke. But it seems Welch is completely serious. This legislator is so hypersensitive that a little “biased” questioning moved him to violate the US Constitution. Sadly, five other members of his party think this garbage is actually worth their support.
There’s very little chance the bill will move forward. Its author is stepping down from the Assembly and it failed to make the cut for the first legislative session of this year. But it’s not dead yet. And there’s enough anti-journalist animosity out there — some of it coming from the Commander-in-Chief — that it may be allowed to survive long enough to earn a veto… or a courtroom challenge.