First Amendment’s survival depends on reader responsibility

By Kody Acevedo

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It’s pretty remarkable how often the First Amendment plays a role in our everyday lives.

We see so many instances where people choose to exercise their freedom of speech, protest and religion. Heck, it would be almost impossible for reporters and journalists to be successful without it.

I guess there’s a reason why it’s the first.

Yet, there’s concern brewing from those inside the news industry.

According to Paul Dughi, in a recent article published in Editor & Publisher, “laws haven’t kept pace with innovation.”

“There’s a new generation of digital journalists and armies of people with cell phones capturing news every day that simply don’t understand the First Amendment (or simply don’t care),” Dughi said. “Many First Amendment issues haven’t been seriously examined in decades.”

Dughi argues that it’s time that we dive in and take action in order to protect our rights.

“Police couldn’t come in to a TV station and take them off the air any more than they could put armed guards to shut down the printing press. But they seem comfortable taking cell phones and cameras and confiscating them when they capture unflattering images. Can they?”

He may be on to something. As technology changes, so too does the way we report and consume the news.

But is the problem actually the fact that our laws are that far behind our technology?

Professor Joseph Russomanno at Arizona State University is reluctant to say so.

“I’m not totally willing to accept that premise,” Russomanno said. “We have principles in place and ways of applying those to all kinds of circumstances including those new ones that surface.

“The principles that we have, the standards that have been established, the precedents that have been set still exist. They still survive. They work quite nicely for any kind of situations that surface, including the kind that are catalyzed by these sorts of technologies.”

Not laws as much as technology

Russomanno is an Associate Professor at ASU and holds a Ph.D from the University of Colorado-Boulder, where his work emphasized First Amendment theory and mass media law. He teaches Mass Communication Law at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

According to Russomanno, the problem isn’t so much that the laws are behind, it’s that newer technologies create situations that have not yet been encountered.

“What we need, from a legal perspective, is cases to surface that will allow our courts to deal with them and to establish a new set of precedents,” Russomanno said.

“What they’ll be using to establish those new set of precedents are those principles that we’ve had with us for at least 100 years.”

Dilemma: Who exactly is a journalist?

It’s not just the technology that has started to raise concern either. There’s also a dilemma to define who exactly qualifies as a journalist. It couldn’t possibly be everyone who owns an iPhone, could it?

People with iPhones may be able to distribute information and opinions, but that doesn’t necessarily make them journalists, according to Russomanno. He says it’s really about the way the practice is done.

“That is what establishes what journalism is and so we should concern ourselves with how people are going about gathering and distributing information,” Russomanno said.

“Being a little bit picky about a certain kind of training or education or a set of techniques and processes that one follows, wherever they may have been learned… once one practices those, they then can be called a journalist.

“What that’s doing is putting a little esteem and prestige on the title of journalist… distinguishing those people from those who simply distribute information.”

Dughi said in his report that many feel that if they simply ignore these problems, they’ll just go away.

He cites a report by Cronkite School Innovation Chief and Professor of Practice Eric Newton, who reported for the Knight Foundation in April that a poll showed 65 percent of the editors rated the news industry as “less able” to pursue legal activity around First Amendment-related issues than it was 10 years ago.

The study then asked to respond to the following statement:

“News organizations are no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms.”

Fifty-three percent agreed. Why? Money, replied 9-out-of-10 respondents.

Russomanno agreed. The quantity of challenges that news organizations make to the government or government agencies is much less frequent.

“It’s very expensive. In this day, in an age when media organizations are having to pinch pennies for their very survival, they see that as representing a cost of business that just isn’t worth it to them.

“If we assume that at the heart of these challenges, or now would-be challenges, is an ability to gather information, evaluate that information and share at least parts of it, if not all of it, with their readers and viewers, then it goes to the very heart of a self-governing democracy.

“Why we have freedom of the press in the first place is to protect their ability to do that. But if they are not going to accept that responsibility, then we all lose.”


Kody Acevedo is a senior at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.



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