If Congressman Peter King (R-NY) has his way, journalists could be arrested, charged, and sent to jail–just for doing their job and telling the truth. King???s comments on Wednesday in the wake of Edward Snowden???s leaking of National Security Agency surveillance programs reflect our government???s dangerous shift away from the principles of free speech and the free press.
After Snowden leaked information about several of NSA???s constitutionally questionable practices–including the monitoring of cell phone records–journalists at several media outlets did what they are trained and hired to do: report the facts of the story, and allow the public to decide how to react to them. For this, Rep. King would like to see these reporters punished, claiming they played a critical role in revealing NSA???s secrets.
There is a clear distinction, however, between the actions of Snowden and those of the reporters to whom he leaked information. Snowden may have violated laws in the process of acquiring the NSA secrets and leaking them to the press–and should summarily have his day in court–but once leaked, information isn???t an illicit substance, and reporters have both the power and the duty to present verified facts to the public, regardless of whether the government wants these facts known.
This power and responsibility ascribed to journalists is so fundamental to our republic that our founders enshrined the freedom of the press in the First Amendment. In fact, journalism is the only profession specifically protected in the Bill of Rights. With this power comes the duty to hold our government accountable, especially when federal agencies are secretly monitoring personal information like our phone calls and web searches. Without strong protections for journalists, our democracy descends down a slippery slope toward state-owned media.
We should be celebrating the work these reporters have done to make the public aware of the Obama administration???s questionable surveillance tactics, not demanding they be prosecuted as common criminals. The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, but like all other rights, this freedom exists only as long as we are willing to fight for it.
Less than 100 years ago, the federal government made it illegal and punishable by up to 20 years in prison for any newspaper to express anti-government or otherwise ???disloyal??? opinion. The Sedition Act, intended to ???help??? our World War I effort, went into effect with minimal pushback from the public, which effectively allowed the media to be muzzled and restricted to cheerleading throughout the war. Scariest of all, no court ever found the Sedition Act unconstitutional–meaning the government could pass the same law again if we sit back and let them.
When politicians like Rep. King trample on the rights of the press, it weakens the mouthpiece for every whistleblower and concerned citizen who wants to make a difference. It’s no wonder that the countries with the greatest press freedom also enjoy the highest standard of living. When government actors intimidate members of the media, other freedoms fall helplessly like a row of dominos.
From the Justice Department???s monitoring of Associated Press reporters??? phone records to the White House???s harassment of Fox investigative reporter James Rosen, it has been a perilous year for journalists, and Rep. King???s comments show that government???s assault on the free press is not limited to any one branch or political ideology. It???s far past time for us to wake up and get serious about protecting the First Amendment. Be it a reporter from Fox News or Mother Jones, our society as a whole needs to recommit to the freedom of the press and encourage young journalists to be aggressive truth-seekers, instead of tolerating intimidation when reporters pursue hard-hitting investigations.
Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.