Off the Hook

September 20, 2008

True to form, the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office says it won’t prosecute “journalists” who were caught in the web of arrests outside the Republican National Convention.  That’s the right call.  But, as I predicted, the call was made for the wrong reasons.  As I wrote a couple weeks ago:

Once again, we are on the verge of government endeavoring to determine who is and who is not a journalist.  This should frighten anyone who cherishes free speech.  The framers of the First Amendment would shudder at the words “media credentials.”  Online communicators in particular, beware.

Jane Kirtley, a media ethics guru at the University of Minnesota and former head of a tremendous outfit called the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was quoted as agreeing with the idea that defining who is and how is not a journalist is tricky business.  She’s exactly right.

The First Amendment was not adopted to protect journalists.  It was enacted to protect free expression for everyone.  True, the First Amendment specifically ensures a free press, but I simply do not believe that “the press” had the same meaning in 1791 as it does today.  Early Americans wanted to make sure that the people who operated printing presses and therefore enabled large-scale free expression would not be subject to the burdensome licensing schemes prevalent in Europe.  The First Amendment’s drafters did not intend to extend special privileges to massive for-profit media conglomerates or even to bloggers for that matter.  Rather, they sought to protect the rights of anyone who had something to say, protesters included.

As for those protesters, I completely agree that some at the RNC crossed the line.  As I said previously, those who participated in the near-riots committed criminal acts.  But the large number of onlookers who merely sought to express themselves, to watch people express themslves, or to document people expressing themselves committed no crimes.  Cases closed.

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