Inside the First Amendment
By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director
What a difference 45 words can make.
The freedoms of speech and press spelled out in the 45 words of the First Amendment protect U.S. journalists from government restraint or reprisal for what they say or write. As a result, with rare exceptions, throughout our history journalists have sometimes risked reputation, circulation or ratings — but not their lives — for what they have published or broadcast.
Take the White House’s latest volley against Fox News. The New York Times reported Sept. 28 that President Barack Obama, in a new Rolling Stone magazine interview, says Fox News promotes a point of view “ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.”
Consider that this is arguably the single most powerful individual on the planet, saying that a specific news operation threatens the future of the nation. So what was Fox News’ response? Executives “declined to respond” — effectively communicating a corporate yawn to the presidential criticism.
Contrast this situation with the plight of journalists in northern Mexico, where the de facto authorities — invasive and ruthless drug cartels — have been killing journalists, and doing so with relative impunity.
The Los Angeles Times reported recently that an estimated 30 reporters had been killed or had gone missing since a government effort began in 2006 to break up the powerful criminal groups. The article followed an extraordinary editorial in a newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, that appealed to the drug lords to tell it what news they don’t want published. The front-page plea followed the killing of second journalist on the paper’s staff.
In the Los Angeles Times report, Mexican journalists did not refrain from commenting — but they spoke anonymously: "You love journalism, you love the pursuit of truth, you love to perform a civic service and inform your community. But you love your life more," said one unidentified editor. "We don’t like the silence. But it’s survival."
Sadly, journalists in the United States today are not immune from violent threats made from other nations where the “marketplace of ideas” is, quite literally, a foreign concept.
On Sept. 15, editors at the Seattle Weekly noted in the newspaper that “you may have noticed that Molly Norris’ comic is not in the paper this week. That’s because there is no more Molly.”
The item went on to explain that the cartoonist was alive, but had gone into hiding because she was targeted in June in a “fatwa” (a call by a Yemeni Islamic cleric for deadly reprisal for an alleged religious offense). The reason? For drawing a controversial cartoon calling for an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” The cartoon was a satire on international criticism of newspapers that published satirical drawings of Islam’s revered figure.
There’s nothing in the First Amendment’s free-press guarantee that protects reporters, editors or cartoonists from criticism, either by government figures or private citizens.
But it’s deplorable that Norris or any journalist — in the United States, Mexico or anywhere — should fear for his or her life just for expressing a view or reporting news that offends someone.
You and I may agree with the president about Fox News, or we may abhor that he so openly attacked a conservative news organization for critical reporting and commentary on his policies. But in any event, nobody has gone to jail or into hiding just because he doesn’t like someone’s particular take on the news.
What a difference just 45 words — and the democratic society they helped shape and sustain — make.
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