Defining who gets Constitutional rights

A Senate committee approved a “media shield” bill designed to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources and giving them protection from government surveillance.  In doing so, the bill defines who gets to be a journalist.  To get these protections, you have to be a paid, professional employee of a recognized news organization.  Bloggers aren’t protected.  I might be because of my past work for World Magazine.  But not, presumably, Matt Drudge, who has often broken stories from confidential sources, including President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Beyond this particular law is a bigger question.  The Constitution guarantees freedom of “the press.”  Is that to apply only to professional journalists?  Or to those who own printing presses, namely, newspaper companies and publishing houses?  At the time of the Constitution, individuals like Ben Franklin–who could hardly be considered a professional news reporter– ran their own printing presses, printing their political opinions and commenting on the news of the day.  The internet in effect allows just about everybody to have their own printing press.  Shouldn’t freedom of the press extend to what you write on a blog or your FaceBook page?

And might other Constitutional rights be restricted by defining who they apply to?  Isn’t this already happening in the way some are construing civil liberties?  “You have the right to keep and bear arms.  That is, you have the right to join the National Guard and to keep your arms in the local armory.”  “You have freedom of religion.  No one will stop you from going to church, and we won’t make your church pay for morning after pills.  Just don’t act on your religious beliefs in the way you run your business.”  “You have freedom of speech, which entitles you to use pornography.  But don’t criticize homosexuality in public.”Thanks to Larry Hughes for raising these questions.  Here is an article about the Senate action, followed by some of Larry’s concerns.

From the Associated Press, Senate Panel OKs Measure Defining a Journalist:

A Senate panel on Thursday approved a measure defining a journalist, which had been an obstacle to broader media shield legislation designed to protect reporters and the news media from having to reveal their sources.

The Judiciary Committee’s action cleared the way for approval of legislation prompted by the disclosure earlier this year that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed almost two months of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press and secretly used a warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist. The subpoenas grew out of investigations into leaks of classified information to the news organizations. . . .

The vote was 13-5 for a compromise defining a “covered journalist” as an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information. The individual would have been employed for one year within the last 20 or three months within the last five years.

It would apply to student journalists or someone with a considerable amount of freelance work in the last five years. A federal judge also would have the discretion to declare an individual a “covered journalist,” who would be granted the privileges of the law.

The committee later approved the overall bill on a 13-5 vote.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a chief proponent of the medial shield legislation, worked with Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., as well as representatives from news organizations, on the compromise.

The bill would protect reporters and news media organizations from being required to reveal the identities of confidential sources, but it does not grant an absolute privilege for journalists.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., complained that the definition of a journalist was too broad. Pushing back, Feinstein said the intent was to set up a test to determine a bona fide journalist.

“I think journalism has a certain tradecraft. It’s a profession. I recognize that everyone can think they’re a journalist,” Feinstein said.

From Larry Hughes:

I just read this story about the “media shield” legislation. I’ve noticed lately that the loss of all the constitutional amendments come from novum legislation designed as “protections” for the very same. And what is frightening is both political sides are doing it. Here’s my worry:

In the media shield, supposedly meant to protect it from source revelation they (meaning both sides) now will define what constitutes a journalist. Now think about that; there’s the first amendment that through the freedom of speech is protecting the freedom of the press. The government defining what constitutes the journalist, i.e. the base level of what the “press” is and thereby opening the door of controlling, de facto, speech and the press. You need not control what is said, but who you affirm as valid to the office. They are doing this to “protect” journalist from unlawful requirements to give up sources.  This was kicked off by the latest NSA issues (hold on to that thought for a minute). . . .

Take another part of the first amend. Let’s say, oh I don’t know “…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. And let’s say in order to “protect” pastors and priests from having to reveal confessionals when confession and absolution are given in private, they write a law that the government can say what constitutes a pastor or priest.  I think that brings it home and crystal clear.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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