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Defining a Journalist

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—According to Reporters Without Boarders, there have been 59 Journalists killed, 12 media assistants killed, 21 “Netizens” and citizen journalists killed and 176 journalists imprisoned so far this year. Reporters Without Boarders notes that, “Journalists killed” includes only cases in which the organizations clearly established that “the victim was killed because of his/her activities as a journalist. It does not include cases in which the motives were not related to the victim’s work or in which a link has not yet been confirmed.”

Here in Alabama, we have had no journalists killed, though we have had one blogger imprisoned and this publication threatened.

Journalism is one job of the very few jobs where a person can lose their life for just stating facts. Here in Alabama, journalists lives are not threatened only their livelihood.

Presumptive, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh has said that he wants his staff to define who is a journalist. In a report by Tim Lockette for the Anniston Star, Marsh is quoted as saying, “All I’ve asked for is some sort of criteria, so that if someone is not a journalist, they won’t be in the press room.”

In the same article he told the Star that, “He never considered the Britts to be real journalists.”

(See article here.)

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So, by this logic, Marsh has predetermined that the Britts should not be in the press room.

However, speaking with Mary Sells of the Decatur Daily, Marsh said, “I think Bill Britt is taking it personally, like it’s against him, it’s not.”

(See article here.)

Marsh’s statements would seem to contradict each other. He says he wants a criteria “that if someone is not a journalist, they won’t be in the press room.” Then he states that he has “never considered the Britts to be real journalists.” Then he tells Mary Sells, it is not about “Bill Britt.”

Marsh appears to use pretzel-logic; bending the facts so as not to be seen targeting a particular group of journalists. Or perhaps, Marsh reveres the truth to such great magnitude that he uses it with the utmost economy.

Wex Legal Dictionary / Encyclopedia by the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University, says, the Free Press Clause in the First Amendment “protects the right of individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without interference, constraint or prosecution by the government.”

By this definition, it is not the media conglomerate or those who own a printing press, or any media outlet, but the “individual,” who is protected under the Free Press Clause.

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Like Freedom of Speech, the Founding Fathers were thinking about the rights of citizens, not corporations.

In 1972, the Supreme Court reaffirmed this notion in, Branzburg v. Hayes, stating that Freedom of the Press was “a fundamental personal right” that is not confined to newspapers and periodicals.

The Supreme Court has held that the “lone pamphleteer,” is at the very heart of the Free Press Clause.

According to the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the United States is ranked 46, behind such countries as the Czech Republic, Namibia, Ghana, El Salvador and other places not often seen as bastions of freedom. In fact, the US is just above Haiti on the Freedom Index.

And Alabama is far down the list of states that allow easy access to public records.

Censorship America offers a historical prospective on freedom to the press. “A celebrated legal case in 1734-1735 involved John Peter Zenger, a New York newspaper printer. He printed a newspaper that publicly bashed the ruler at this time, and he was taken to jail. He was taken to court and charged with seditious libel for assailing the corrupt royal governor of New York. His lawyer Andrew Hamilton defended him well, and was made famous for his speech “truth cannot be libel.” This court case paved the way for Freedom of the Press in the United States to be adopted in the Constitution.”

(See “History of Censorship” here.)

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According to the Library of Congress, the Alien and Sedition Act was “Signed into law by President John Adams in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress as America prepared for war with France. These acts increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and restricted speech critical of the government. These laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party. Negative reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 elections. Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802, while the other acts were allowed to expire.”

As Censor America points out a major aspect of the law was to set out the punishments of imprisonment for writing or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the President or Congress.

It would appear that Marsh who has sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, doesn’t agree with the Framers of the Constitution, and much prefers the egregious Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Anniston Star and the Montgomery Advertiser have taken exception to Marsh’s desire to limit press access to the Senate.

The Star published an editorial titled “You might be a journalist”…

(See article here.)

…while the Advertiser said, “Don’t limit definition of journalists.”

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(See article here.)

Both editorials are welcome and show the kind of intellectual honesty that challenges the “Marsh Doctrine.”

The editorial board of al.com and others are yet to weigh-in on the subject, challenging the notion that they are the big dogs of journalism. But, there is still time for them to assert their considerable editorial power.

As of yet, no one has been greatly harmed and no one is likely to be killed by Marsh’s actions, but, his is the path of every would-be tyrant. It is utterly amazing to think that he will lead the Senate of Alabama for the next four years, when there are actually freedom-loving leaders who are much more suited for the job.

But, just so no one, not even a State Senator can miss the point that a journalist, according to the strict interpretation of the constitution, is an individual who expresses himself through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.

Of course, there is that pesky part about interference, constraint or prosecution from the government, which Marsh seems ready to supply.

Still, every year, journalists put their lives in mortal danger to tell the truth about corruption. Not for money or glory, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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Wish the same could be said of the man who would lead our State’s Senate.

Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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