The Lewiston, Maine, police were understandably nervous. The World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group with a history of violence, was coming to town. It planned a rally in support of the mayor, who had urged Somali immigrants to stop moving into his town.
A counter-rally quickly was scheduled for another part of town. Though the two rallies were far apart, police and city leaders still were concerned that emotions would get out of control. So the police chief announced a set of rules intended to keep the peace.
No one, he said, could bring a camera, audio recorder or video recorder to the rallies without permission. Such devices might hide a weapon. Signs couldn’t be mounted on wood, which could be turned into weapons. And police wouldn’t allow signs to contain any words or images that police considered incendiary.
When the Maine SPJ Chapter contacted me and other national officers about this, I was incensed. While I understood and sympathized with law enforcement’s efforts to prevent violence, their solutions trampled on citizens’ First Amendment rights. I issued a statement that said so; you can find it at http://www.spj.org/news_archive.asp.
I’ve heard that some members scratched their heads over it. They could understand why the Society would object to restrictions on cameras and tape recorders. Police shouldn’t be in the position of deciding who may or may not take pictures or record sound in a public place, which essentially puts them in the position of deciding who is or is not a journalist.
But these members were puzzled why SPJ would make an issue of the content of rally signs. That’s not journalism.
They’re right; it’s not a journalism issue. But it is a First Amendment free speech issue. And we in SPJ pride ourselves on being advocates for the First Amendment.
We don’t do ourselves any favors if we defend the First Amendment only when mainstream journalists’ rights are threatened. When we do that, the public has reason to believe we’re interested in special rights for ourselves. That only drives attitudes hostile to the press. When we stand up for First Amendment rights that don’t directly affect us, we can win greater support for our causes.
And, to be pragmatic, it doesn’t take a great leap to make the content of rally signs a journalistic issue. If police can decide what appears on a cotton banner, why couldn’t they also restrict the images that appear in a newspaper rack on a public sidewalk? Just think of the damage an incendiary image could do there, especially if children saw it!
Several of the fights SPJ takes on don’t, at first blush, appear to be directly related to journalism. Some of our members questioned why we put so much money and effort into helping Vanessa Leggett, who in their eyes wasn’t a journalist. That one was easy: When prosecutors went on a fishing expedition for all of her notes, they put at risk the work of every journalist working on a long-term project.
Similarly, in Utah, an overzealous prosecutor filed criminal libel charges against a high school student who filled his Web site with uncomplimentary comments about his principal. That Web site bore no resemblance to the journalism practiced by members of this Society, but the prosecution put every reporter and editor in Utah at risk.
The principal, the person aggrieved by the student’s Web site, had already filed and settled a civil libel action. Yet here was a prosecutor bringing the full force of the state in an effort to imprison a citizen for speaking his mind about a public official. If, sometime in the future, a Utah newspaper published an article critical of another state official – but made a mistake – that reporter could be subject to prosecution. It’s a chilling thought.
Or it would have been if the Utah Supreme Court, with urging from SPJ and other journalism groups, hadn’t declared the criminal libel law unconstitutional. Sadly, Utah has yet another law prosecutors can use to punish speech in criminal court. That’s a First Amendment fight for another day.
Membership in SPJ has many benefits. I’m working on adding more.
SPJ’s leaders are standing up for you in many of the key battles fought for freedom of information and First Amendment issues. Our national committees in ethics, FOI, diversity and journalism education often have great tips that you can put to use in your jobs immediately.
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In recent months, SPJ members have received electronic news about journalism conferences, diversity resources and information about threats to press freedom. SPJ is much more than Quill and a bill. But we need your help to make sure you’re getting all the benefits.
Robert Leger is president of SPJ and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.