Wisconsin photographer’s arrest sends a reminder: journalists enjoy no special rules

November 3, 2011

A Milwaukee newspaper reporter’s arrest at an Occupy protest is the latest reminder that even though most working journalists carry press passes and other credentials, in the end they enjoy no special privileges in Minnesota or anywhere else.

And arguably, they shouldn’t.

The First Amendment is rooted in the idea that a free “press” must be free from governmental control.   As this month’s newsletter from the National Communication Association explains in an article titled “Celebrating the First Amendment, Thank you, James Madison!”:

The English kings and queens had tried to enforce prior restraint through their system of licensing printers; in other words, if a printer did not have a license from the Crown, he could not print anything at all. Printers who defied the Crown could be have their ears cut off or their noses split; they could be branded with a hot iron, or they could be drawn and quartered.

 A core problem with government awarding privileges to journalists is that it is the government that gets to decide who is and who is not a journalist.  There is a good argument that entrusting government to make such decisions is as troublesome as the British Crown’s licensing scheme.

That being said, if a journalist is targeted for arrest because he or she is a journalists (or a blogger, or an iPhone photographer, etc.), that raises a whole other set of problems.  It’s not clear whether that set of facts was present in the Wisconsin arrest.

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