Archive for the ‘First Amendment’ Category


While judge protects journalists in Portland, court ruling in Seattle endangers reporters

UPDATE: Within hours of the issuance of the temporary restraining order in Portland, federal agents shot Oregon Public Broadcasting journalist Rebecca Ellis with tear-gas projectiles. She was not injured, but it it appears to be a flagrant violation of the order.

Journalists won some and lost some in the past week in the Pacific Northwest.

The good news was that a federal judge temporarily barred federal agents from using force or threats against journalists covering the demonstrations in downtown Portland.

But that legal victory was tempered by a King County Superior Court judge’s ruling that the Seattle Times and other news outlets had to turn over unpublished photos and videos of a violent May 30 protest, despite a strong shield law in Washington state.

Both cities have seen protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes. There has been violence with the protests, and President Donald Trump sent federal agents to protect federal property in the city.

But there are reports that the agents, who do not wear agency patches on their camouflage uniforms and body armor, have gone outside the boundaries of the federal courthouse and other federal buildings, grabbing people off the street and bundling them into unmarked vehicles.

During the protests, these agents have also fired “impact munitions” — so-called less-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and wooden dowels — at journalists and legal observers during the protests.

Attorney Matthew Borden, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said the assaults on journalists were not accidents, but the “acts of intimidation by a tyrant, and they have no place in the city of Portland.”

We’ve already seen this happen in other cities, where police target journalists who are observing the protests and police actions, some of which border on violent themselves.

In a 22-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon issued a temporary order barring the federal agents from willfully targeting, threatening or intimidating journalists who were covering the protests, as well as legal observers.

Simon rejected the U.S. Justice Department’s arguments that it was too hard for the officers to tell the difference between journalists and violent protesters, as well as the assertion that journalists did not have a right to access above the public to the closed-off areas.

“When wrongdoing is underway, officials have great incentive to blindfold the eyes of the Fourth Estate. The free press is the guardian of the public interest, and the judiciary is the guardian of the press,” Simon wrote.

Unfortunately, farther up Interstate 5, King County Superior Court Judge Nelson Lee believes journalists should be the Seattle Police Department’s eyes rather than those of the public.

Lee upheld a subpoena ordering the Seattle Times, KIRO 7, KING 5, KOMO 4 and KCPQ 13 to turn over all unpublished photos and unaired video and outtakes from coverage of a May 30 demonstration downtown.

Police say they are seeking the video and photos to identify who stole firearms from SPD vehicles that were set afire during the demonstration.

Lee claimed that the police had met the burden of overcoming the state’s shield law by demonstrating that the information was “highly material and relevant” and that all other reasonable means were exhausted.

First, let me say that stolen weapons are a serious matter. But it’s also no excuse to force journalists to surrender information that is protected by the state’s shield law.

It is highly unlikely that police have exhausted all reasonable efforts to get the information from other sources. For example, there are social media posts, surveillance camera footage from nearby businesses and homes and plain old shoe-leather detective work. Police could also offer a reward for information that will loosen someone’s lips enough to finger the suspects.

Forcing journalists to turn over footage, photos and other information gathered in the process of reporting undermines journalistic independence and puts journalists in danger.

A shield law recognizes the Fourth Estate’s role as an independent observer capable of bearing record to government’s actions and informing the public of what they do. In order to do that, journalists need protection from turning over their work materials, unpublished information or names of confidential sources to government.

It’s akin to the privilege we grant clergy, doctors and lawyers not to disclose things they were told by those they work with. While it may frustrate police and prosecutors, those privileges ensure that society works and justice is served.

The same goes for journalists. Allowing us to protect information ensures that we can do our jobs of holding the powerful accountable and helping those who are wronged.

If this subpoena is allowed to stand, it will make journalists’ jobs much harder — and dangerous.

There are already reports of protesters attacking photojournalists  because they don’t want their pictures taken. If journalists are forced to give information to the police, we will be seen as merely informants for the government and targeted even more for violence.

To follow that path to its conclusion, it would mean journalists would likely not want to cover a demonstration for fear of violence, and thus deprive both sides of an independent observer who can stand as a witness for what happened on both sides.

Unless police Chief Carmen Best and Mayor Jenny Durkan exercise some common sense and withdraw the subpoena, we have to hope that an appeals court judge has more courage than Judge Lee.

Washington bill to restrict access to employee birthdates does more harm than good

This statement was sent to the Washington State Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections

Committee members,
My name is Donald W. Meyers, and I am the regional coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s oldest and broadest journalism group. The region I represent covers the Pacific Northwest, including Washington state. I am also a working journalist with more than 30 years of experience in weekly and daily newspapers.
I am also an identity theft victim. I know firsthand the upheaval having one’s identity stolen and misused can create in a person’s life. In my case, I was nearly arrested, hounded by bill collectors and had restricted access to my own money as the result of someone impersonating me.
Speaking both on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists and personally, I am opposed to Second Substitute House Bill 1888. While it appears to be based in good intentions on the surface, it only serves to add another restriction on information the public needs to hold government accountable and does absolutely nothing to protect people from identity theft.
This bill was primarily drafted because the SEIU did not want its members receiving what it perceives as anti-union messages from the Freedom Foundation. The arguments about identity theft and protecting people from stalking and domestic abuse appear to be an attempt at scaring the Legislature to take action that overrides a decision of the state’s highest court.
Rather than abridging the Public Records Act to silence an opponent, the SEIU should instead respond with its own messages to refute the Freedom Foundation’s arguments. As Justice Louis Brandeis said in Whitney v. California, the remedy to bad speech is more speech, not enforced silence.
Having access to birthdates and photos serves a vital public good. It is a way of verifying someone’s identity. That is crucial when reporting on court proceedings or investigating corruption in government. For instance, without birthdates, it would be difficult to compare a list of school bus drivers against people who have DUI convictions. It provides a way to differentiate between people with identical names.
While the current bill offers an exemption for the news media, that is troubling in the current climate of hostility toward journalists coming from all levels of government. It creates a way to deny journalists access to information by someone who, for whatever reason, decides that an outlet does not fit their definition of a journalist.
As for the issues of identity theft, a birthdate is not as vital a piece of information as some would think. The true key piece of information is the Social Security number, which is already has legal safeguards in place. Likewise, it is unlikely that an identity thief is going to use the Public Records Act, which would create a paper trail that could be easily traced. Instead, they use phishing schemes and dumpster diving to get the information they need. In my case, my Social Security number was lifted from a class roster at a private university that was passed around so students could check in for the day’s class.
There are also mechanisms in place that safeguard information on people who are experiencing domestic violence or stalking that do not require creating yet another exemption to the Public Records Act.
And in the unlikely event someone does use a public record for stalking or identity theft, there are already laws in place to prosecute such behavior. There is no need to enact a law that infringes on people’s exercise of a lawful right.
I would recommend that this bill not be passed, as it only restricts people’s access to necessary public record. It harms the public’s good while providing no genuine benefit in return.
I thank you for your consideration.

Donald W. Meyers,
Region 10 Coordinator
Society of Professional Journalists

Trump’s praise for Congressman who bodyslammed journalist tone-deaf, appalling

President Donald Trump’s anti-press harangues have always been disturbing, especially after the shooting at the Capitol-Gazette in Annapolis, Md.
But last week, his comments truly went beyond the pale, especially in light of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul earlier this month.
At a campaign rally in Billings, Mont. Thursday, Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte for body-slamming Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian in 2017, as he was running for Congress.
Gianforte attacked Jacobs, enraged over what he thought was “biased” coverage. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, performed 40 hours of community service, went through 20 hours of anger management counseling and donated $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Trump’s praise for Gianforte comes as his administration drags its feet in responding to the killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who wrote critically of the government in Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi had gone to the Saudi consulate to fill out paperwork for his upcoming wedding, and has not been seen since. Reports from the Turkish government — which has its own issues with press freedom — said the journalist was tortured, killed and dismembered by an assassination team. The Saudi government only recently acknowledged Khashoggi’s death, claiming he got into a brawl with the 15 men.
The Trump administration is not applying skepticism to such an implausible story. Combined with his recent comments about Gianforte, it shows a disdain for journalists, particularly those who speak truth to power.
Instead of standing up for basic human rights and the rights of a free press, qualities that once made America great in the eyes of the world, Trump appears to be giving a pass to those who use extreme means to silence critics.
I join with SPJ National President J. Alex Tarquinio in calling for Kashoggi’s killers to be brought to justice, with the United States using all of its influence to call for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s death.
And I also think it is time that Trump stop the anti-press rhetoric, and apologize for his remarks. After all, Gianforte apologized for his attack.

We are the voice of the people

Politicians criticizing the news media for coverage is not new.
Thomas Jefferson, who once famously said he would pick newspapers over government, had his issues with news stories that were critical of him.
While Abraham Lincoln said a free press was essential to a free government, he had no objections to jailing journalists who criticized the Civil War or supported the South’s bid to break away from the Union.
And who could forget Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list,” which being listed on practically became a badge of honor during the Watergate Era.
And we’ve all seen it at the small end of the scale, with state, county and municipal officials complaining that they can’t get a fair shake in the press.
But what we are seeing today is completely different. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has whipped his followers into an anti-press frenzy, weaponizing the phrase “Fake News” (the ultimate in oxymorons).
It’s an epithet he’s admitted is designed to erode press credibility as journalists report on his administration’s actions.
Now, he’s added a more dangerous phrase to his rhetoric — Enemy of the People. And footage from Trump’s rallies show that his supporters are taking the cue, and directing verbal abuse — and threats of violence — at the press corps following Trump. Remember the infamous rope-tree-journalist T-shirts?
And we can see the anger filtering down to the local level.
But we are not the enemy of the people. We serve as their eyes and ears, as well as their voice in holding leaders and institutions accountable for their actions.
In our own region, we saw Washington’s newspapers call out the state Legislature for trying to rush through a bill nullifying a court ruling that they were subject to the state’s Public Records Act. The intense media scrutiny spurred people to call their lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee and stop this bad legislation in its tracks.
In Oregon, the Oregonian exposed how police officers with bad records were allowed to keep their peace-officer certifications.
And at my own shop, one of my colleagues showed how missteps by local law enforcement allowed a felon with warrants to be released from custody, only to kill a missionary student later.
We’re the ones who inform the public about how their tax dollars are being spent, tell them about the wildfires that could possibly threaten their homes and how officials are trying to protect them.
Are journalists perfect? Of course not. But we do our best, and when we fall short we quickly admit it and strive to do better.
As James Madison put it, “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression; who reflect that to the same beneficent source the United States owe much of the lights which conducted them to the ranks of a free and independent nation, and which have improved their political system into a shape so auspicious to their happiness.”

Donald W. Meyers, a multimedia journalist with the Yakima Herald-Republic, is the Region 10 director for the Society of Professional Journalists.

WWU’s SPJ Chapter Hosts First Amendment Free Food Festival

Last month I had the privilege to attend the First Amendment Free Food Festival, hosted by the student SPJ chapter of Western Washington University. The event was held mid-day on Thurs., May 12 in a common area known, ironically, as Red Square. Here SPJ volunteers passed out free pizza to students who were willing to give up their First Amendment Rights to enter the restricted zone. More than 100 students actively handed over the rights, while at least a dozen others refused, walking off without pizza.

For more coverage of the event, visit the links below:

The Western Front

WWU SPJ Student Blog

 

Photo by Dana Neuts

 

Photo by Dana Neuts

For more photos, visit Facebook.

 

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