Reason to appreciate the First Amendment
A scandal that has rocked the tabloid press in Britain resulted this week in recommendations for an independent regulatory body to oversee British press coverage.
Although the proposed new body would not be a government group, it would be empowered and overseen by Parliament, and that’s a frightening proposition for anybody who believes in the importance of a free press.
Fortunately, we in the United States are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, one of the most powerful, brief and important statements of rights ever committed to a nation’s foundational document. It protects our right to publish without fear of government interference. It protects broadcasters, Internet bloggers and average citizens as well.
Press freedom is more restricted in Britain, where there are more potent libel laws, tougher rules allowing government secrecy and limiting public meetings and more controls over who owns and operates newspapers.
The restrictions could be much greater if the recommendations of a government panel that investigated the phone-hacking scandal with the tabloid press are approved. Sir Brian Leveson, head of that panel, said it recommended the formation of a special independent regulatory body to address complaints against the press and oversee ethical standards.
Leveson was quick to state that, because it would not be created legislatively, the independent regulatory group would not amount to government control of the press. But many observers in the press doubt that, given the connection to Parliament. Moreover, while compliance would supposedly be voluntary, publications that rejected the recommendations of the regulatory group could face even steeper economic sanctions.
In the United States, we have not seen widespread invasion of privacy such as occurred in England — illegally hacking the phones of celebrities, government officials and even crime victims. Some reporters and editors are now facing prison time.
However, and lest anyone worry that we may injure an arm patting ourselves on the back, we recognize that many people don’t trust the press in this country.
The Daily Sentinel, along with many other newspapers, is regularly accused of being part of the liberal media or the vast right-wing conspiracy, depending on one’s perspective. We are pejoratively called part of the Mainstream Media or the Lamestream Media, if you adopt Sarah Palin’s terminology.
The important point, however, is that the First Amendment allows The Daily Sentinel and every other news organization in this country to make our own decisions regarding what to publish, how to cover news stories and what opinions to endorse. We rise and fall on how well we perform those tasks and serve our readers, not based on our compliance with some committee’s rules. Even the hardsest critics of the press should prefer that to government oversight.