Why Ignore Supreme Court's Threat To Free Press?
Having spent years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I am proud
to be called an "ink-stained wretch." But I am mystified by the
newsroom silence about a legal dagger aimed at the heart of the
First Amendment and the free press.
That silence should worry every citizen who cares about preserving
his or her right to speak out on the issues of the day. The
Constitution makes journalists our independent watchdogs to keep
the politicians honest. We all lose if the politicians muzzle our
watchdogs. But must journalists help tie their own muzzles?
The dagger is the underlying logic of the Supreme Court's recent
McConnell v. FEC decision upholding McCain-Feingold, the Bipartisan
Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, including its ban on soft
money campaign contributions and issue ads on television and
Congress "shall make no law" limiting freedom of speech or the
press, according to the First Amendment to the Constitution, but
with its recent decision the Supreme Court now says Congress can
limit First Amendment freedoms to avoid the "appearance of
corruption" in politics.
The law bans issue ads, which often praise or blast incumbent
congressmen for their votes on key issues, for 30 days prior to a
primary and 60 days before a general election. The ban should be
especially worrisome for journalists whose livelihoods depend upon
the unfettered expression of opinion and public debate on the news
of the day.
If issue ads create a corrupting appearance 60 days before an
election, they must be corrupting 61 or 90 or 120 days before votes
are cast. And ads that corrupt on radio and TV must also corrupt in
the newspaper and on the Internet. See how the Supreme Court's
logic sets a precedent that can only lead to growing restrictions
on freedom of speech and the press?
That is why Justice Clarence Thomas ended his stinging dissent with
this disturbing prophecy: "The chilling endpoint of the Court's
reasoning is not difficult to see: outright regulation of the
press." No wonder Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision "a sad
day for freedom of speech."
Shouldn't journalists be up in arms when a Supreme Court Justice
says government censors in the newsroom could be within sight?
Evidently not, judging by the Web sites of the American Society of
Newspaper Editors (ASNE), Reporters Committee for Freedom of the
Press (RCFP) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). I
found no mention of the decision on the three Web sites, so I
e-mailed leaders of the groups asking about their silence.
Other issues have preoccupied ASNE and RCFP, said Scott Bosley,
executive director of the former, and Rebecca Daugherty, director
of the latter's Freedom of Information Service Center. "The issue,
while important, is not smack in the middle of our wheelhouse, as
so many critical public records matters have been in the past
couple years," Bosley said. Conflicting editorial stands by various
newspapers also would make finding unanimity difficult, he
"Campaign ads have traditionally been a back-burner issue for us,
and we've had a lot on our front burners these last few years,"
Daugherty said, noting that she had not seen the Thomas or Scalia
dissents but would "see if we can at least get those covered in
SPJ has its regional conferences coming in April. Surely these
gatherings would be appropriate forums for discussing the Supreme
Court decision. Yet only four of the eight folks listed on SPJ's
web site as conference contacts responded to my e-mail inquiries.
None of their conference programs include anything on the Supreme
Court decision. All three organizations do great work on those
other issues, but doesn't the specter of government regulation of
the press deserve at least some comment?
ASNE's Bosley suggested part of the explanation here. Many of the
nation's most influential editorial pages supported McCain-Feingold
and lustily cheered the Supreme Court decision upholding the law,
including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, The Los
Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Having
second thoughts now wouldn't look so good.
Even so, big corporations own all of those papers. How enthusiastic
will they be when federal bureaucrats decree editorial pages owned
by big corporations can't express opinions about candidates or
their positions if doing so creates the appearance of
Mark Tapscott is Director of the Center for Media and
Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and
oversees its Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting program.