When I talk about freedom of information laws to students, pros or civic groups, I always ask if they can guess the first country to create a public records law. Most say England, Canada or the United States.
They are usually surprised when they hear the answer: China.
Yeah, China. In about A.D. 627, Emperor T’ai-tsung created the Imperial Censorate ombudsman’s office, making available public records and allowing anyone who had a grievance with the government to simply walk to the palace steps and beat a drum until satisfied. The U.S. didn’t pass a FOIA law until 1966, more than 1,300 years later.
This goes to show that democratic ideals can be fleeting. A thousand years from now, if we stand idly by, the U.S. could go the path of China and end up a secretive totalitarian police state.
Shoot, already I see signs of it happening, nearly every week. This year SPJ has aided numerous journalists facing recalcitrant government thugs who would undermine a free press and the First Amendment.
We gave students at Otterbein University $5,000 from the Legal Defense Fund to help with their lawsuit over closed police records. We’ve supported a campus newspaper adviser at Oregon State University facing obstructionist administrators and potential firing. We’ve spoken out for Jana Winter, James Risen, Joe Hosey and others who would be jailed for doing their jobs as journalists.
We cannot let this happen now, we cannot let this happen 1,000 years from now. We need an endowed war chest to protect journalists in perpetuity. Forever. Long after you and I are dead and gone, we need a well-financed force to protect what we fight so hard for today.
Fortunately, SPJ is well-positioned to fill this void. We are a 501c(6), which allows for unlimited advocacy, lobbying and all-out political warfare. We can go to bat for journalists when they cannot. The fund could pay for:
• Fire brigades to swoop into a city immediately, when quick action makes a difference, to raise a ruckus if government threatens openness, arrests journalists or oppresses student newspapers. Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center dubs this the “J-Team.” I pity the fool who censors a college paper.
• Lobbying Congress and legislatures for better laws, including staffing a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to ensure journalists’ interests are protected. Journalists can’t lobby, but SPJ can. Money is power, and we are not just Citizens United. We are Journalists United.
• Fostering public education and awareness o f the importance of journalism in a democracy through television ads, social media campaigns and nationwide events. In addition to money (see previous point), laws are driven by public opinion polls.
• In addition to the Legal Defense Fund to help journalists in trouble, creating a Legal Offense Fund to sue public agencies who hinder access to records and First Amendment values. Proactively fight for better laws and better protections for working journalists.
• Assisting and collaborating with other groups who share the same passion and mission for journalism. We are a scattered, independent group of cats, and while that diffusion is healthy, we lack sustained coordination that can endure a century or more.
This isn’t an easy task. SPJ’s fundraising and educational arm, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, a 501(c)3, has a $12 million endowment, but its scope of lobbying is legally limited. Its money is well spent on training and development in journalism.
That leaves SPJ, a 501(c)6, to find the money in its own budget, perhaps carving out a portion of membership revenues. Maybe we create a lifetime membership program to infuse money into the endowment. Or members might leave contributions in their wills. Perhaps foundations, corporations or philanthropists might support the cause — a lasting legacy protecting journalism and democracy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
If you believe in this cause, let me know. Even if you don’t, let me know. Go to my Freedom of the Prez blog and tell me what you think, what we might even call this fund. Or email me at email@example.com.
Raising such an endowment will take years — decades, even. But if we don’t start now, if we don’t make this a reality for our children and their children’s children, who will? China?
David Cuillier, 2013-14 SPJ president and former SPJ FOI Committee chairman, is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he teaches and researches access to public records and data. He is coauthor with Charles Davis of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” Reach him at spjdave@ yahoo.com.
Tagged under: FOI