Archive for March, 2009

“Press” vs. Public: Does It Matter? Yes, In The Minnesota House

March 18, 2009

A showdown is brewing between the Minnesota House of Representatives and nontraditional media regarding who gets to record House proceedings.  And if this goes to court, the case could be groundbreaking for helping to determine who is the “press” and who is the “public,” and does it (or should it) really matter anymore?

Here’s the deal.  The House is assigning authority to its “Sergeant At Arms” to determine who gets to make audio and video recordings anywhere our elected House members do “business.”  This would include not only the House chamber, but also committee rooms, and arguably, I would think, “press conferences” and anyplace an elected House member shows her or his face.

A copy of the “application” is here.  Predicably, it requires applicants to identify their employer, whether they’re a member of a recognized journalism group or association, and the “long-term nature of your assignment.”  In other words, it licenses existing and largely “mainstream” media.  Also, stunningly, it imposes a prior restraint by banning applicants from “videotaping audience members.”

The reason behind all this?  For the “safety and security of all.”  Really?  How in the world does restricting audio and video recordings in a publicly accessible place affect safety and security?

The current and evolving generation of citizens journalists are understandably going nuts over this.  My buddy Jason Barnett at The UpTake is helping to lead the charge.  He talked about it on Channel 4 recently, but at a time when most Minnesotans are either in church, at brunch, or sleeping in.  (Channel 4 video here.)

Consume The UpTake’s coverage and read their take on the issue here.  They’re right on point.

So what precisely are our elected representatives scared of?  It is not at all clear, and the purported concerns over “safety” and “security” are wholly speculative.  Warning: Time and time again, courts have invalidated laws based on speculative fears when, as here, freedom of expression is at issue.

This appears to be yet another attempt by Minnesota officials to restrain expression in the name of keeping order and upholding morals.  These were the reasons behind our Legislature’s nineteenth century ban on newspapers publishing true details of public executions, its World War I-era laws targeted at anti-war protesters, and the horrible Public Nuisance Law of 1925 that authorized the state to shut down “nuisance” newspapers.  Amazingly, it was the Public Nuisance Law and the Minnesota Supreme Court’s refusal to invalidate it that finally led the United States Supreme Court to say in Near v. Minnesota that enough was enough, that the First Amendment applied not only to the federal government but also to the states.

Think our state is a place where everyone is above average when it comes to free expression?  Think again.  Near v. Minnesota is the reason why we have freedom of expression (not just freedom of the press) from coast to coast.  In the words of a Lutheran confirmation student, this is most certainly true.

Is Minnesota on the cusp of another legal revolution, one that would be expensive for state taxpayers?  Stay tuned.

Grassley Mowed Down

March 17, 2009

All right, so Charles Grassley is not from Minnesota, but he is from our neighbor to our south, and he’s a lawmaker who’s in the media spotlight today.  So I’m bending the Media Law Minnesota rules just a touch to blog on this week’s uproar over the Iowan’s comment that AIG executives might want to consider suicide.

If you haven’t heard, this is what the senator said on the air at WMT Radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

The first thing that would make me feel a little bit better towards them if they’d follow the Japanese model and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things — resign, or go commit suicide.

(Real audio here.)

Look, Chuck Grassley is not a dumb guy, but that was really, really dumb.

As a cub newspaper reporter in Iowa, I covered the good senator many times and was among the Iowa reporters who used to occassionally tape radio interviews with him.  Usually the interviews took place by phone.  I’d be in Iowa, and Grassley in Washington.  He was smart enough to ask whether any news had happened during the time he was in a committee meeting or on the Senate floor, just to make sure we reporters with access to the newswires would not ambush him with a question and make him sound dumb on the air.

This week, of course, Grassley sounded dumb all by himself, and it was his own fault.  But he’s loved in Iowa, and he’ll survive.  And, to be honest, he probably should.

But will we survive?  Will we news consumers survive the furor and the flaps over these quick-hit, gotcha sound bytes that permeate today’s news?  I have my fears.

In the grand scheme of things, Grassley’s comment was a non-event.  These are serious times, and we as news consumers are getting seriously distracted by stuff like this that succeeds only in diverting our collective attention away from the complicated issues that cannot and should not be captured in sound bytes.

Meanwhile, yet another newspaper bit the dust today — this one in Seattle.  Some folks say it’s about time.  But many of us are hungering for places where we can get our daily fix of stuff that matters.  With stories like the Grassley flap filling the blogs and airwaves, it’s getting harder and harder.