Why Licensing Journalists Is A Bad Idea

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

Licensing journalists is an idea that surfaces from time to time. But it’s always a bad idea.

Such proposals may originate from grudges held by lawmakers, or a political strategy to typecast journalists as biased and out of touch, or the occasional well-meaning soul who equates journalists with lawyers or doctors.

The latest effort arose in Michigan, where a state legislator proposed a state board through which journalists would voluntarily register — at $10 per license — and that would certify them as having “good moral character” and a basic level of training and experience.

Though legislative leaders, and even the bill’s sponsor, say there probably won’t even be a committee hearing on the bill, let alone a vote, the mere thought of government’s setting itself up to control or influence the news media like this has drawn criticism from journalism professionals, as you might expect. But this time the critical chorus also includes a group relatively new to battles about certification: bloggers.

The rise of so-called citizen journalists brings into sharp focus a basic First Amendment argument: Government should not be involved in deciding who should convey news and information, or who’s most qualified to do so. Public officials should not be declaring or deciding who is a journalist.

Far too often, we think of the phrase “a free press” as pertaining just to those who work each day in news organizations. But First Amendment protection for gathering and publishing news applies to the journalistic process, however that might be carried out. Even as traditional news outlets reshape, retool and rethink past print and broadcast models in favor of online media, journalism on those older fronts continues. Is news from Fox, NBC or USA Today somehow different when it’s distributed or read online, rather than viewed, heard or read through cable, broadcast, or on newsprint?

No wonder bloggers object to this journalist-registration idea. “Free press” applies to them too, and besides, news is news no matter the platform.

Yet the Michigan proposal would not apply to photojournalists. Are images not news? Consider just a few news pictures that have become generational icons — the U.S. flag being raised at Iwo Jima in World War II, fire hoses spraying civil rights protesters in the 1950s and ‘60s, a prone body and a grieving young woman at the Kent State University shootings during the Vietnam War, a firefighter carrying a child fatally injured in the Oklahoma City bombing, the flag raised at ground zero after the 9/11 attacks.

An even more basic problem with proposals like the Michigan bill is that, if they went into effect, they might intimidate some people who would otherwise like to practice journalism in some way, shape or form. A source might ask a reporter, columnist or blogger, "Are you certified?" Excluding some from the work of a free press, even if that’s not the intention of the proposal sponsor, would reduce the number of sources of news and information. Far better to be able to scan a wide spectrum of news organizations and individual contributors of reporting.

“More” is not just better in this respect, but more comprehensive, detailed and even self-correcting. Consider the large number of Web sites that exist to “watch the watchdogs” by holding news purveyors accountable.

The nation’s founders, in setting up the ultimate constitutional protection for a free press, saw its value to their fledgling society as a balance against the power of government. A free press tracks and reports on government actions. Not for an instant did the founders view the press as a tool, partner or servant of government.

More voices and views, not licenses and limits, are what the First Amendment means in affirming our right to have — and be part of, should we choose — a free press.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail: [email protected].