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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

First Amendment and the masses

The MSM doth protest too much, methinks.

We’ve got to keep talking. By we I mean bloggers and journalists and those of us who, heaven help us, do both. This blogger versus journalist discussion is a tired argument that misses the larger point about sharing good content with the masses. Consider this piece by LA Times’ columnist David Shaw. His argument in a nutshell is that bloggers aren’t journalists even though they publish because they are part of an unfiltered medium and therefore aren’t deserving of protections, such as state shield laws, afforded to traditional journalists.

I found this argument STILL misses the larger point about our commitment to freedom of expression, regardless of the method of delivery. Sitting on my desk is a calendar from the Freedom Forumcontaining quotes from people across centuries proclaiming what freedom of speech means to them. And atop every page are these important words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The free flow of ideas, of speaking truth to power, is what the First Amendment guarantees, not the free flow of ideas simply from the MSM. The First Amendment and Sunshine laws are not simply for the journalistic few, they also are for “the great unwashed.” Who are we (I’m wearing my journalist hat now) to say that anyone — blogger, MSM, Jane Q. Public — is not afforded protections of that amendment?

Leave it to Jack Shafer at Slate to bring this argument to the masses. In ”Don't Fear the Blogger” he pleads with someone to help David Shaw get a grip, pointing out how the MSM is just as imperfect a craft as blogging.

Any journalist who throws rocks at bloggers should pick his targets carefully and expect a volley in return.

We keep coming back to the question of who is a journalist. Though there has been some struggle over this question, here’s how the courts have ruled:

Courts have long struggled with this seemingly easy question. While no doubt exists that "mainstream" media, such as broadcast stations, newspapers and magazines, enjoy the freedom of "the press," the line gets blurrier in cases involving underground newspapers, free-lance writers and pamphleteers. In general, however, courts have defined "the press" so as to include all publishers. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, has said that First Amendment protections extend to "'every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.'" von Bulow v. von Bulow, 811 F.2d 136, 144 (2d Cir.) (quoting Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 452 (1938)), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1015 (1987).

Let’s repeat that phrase: “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.”

Slate's Shafer writes:

Shaw seems to believe that the First Amendment and its subsidiary protections belong to the credentialed employees of the established corporate press and not to the great unwashed. I suggest that he—or one of the four experienced editors who touched his copy—research the history of the First Amendment. They'll learn that the Founders wrote it precisely to protect Tom, Dick, and Matt and the wide-eyed pamphleteers and the partisan press of the time. The professional press, which Shaw believes so essential in protecting society, didn't even exist until the late 19th century.

In the end I’m of the Hubert H. Humphrey school and believe “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate." So let's keep talking and writing and blogging. It's a healthy contribution to public discourse.

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