One might have thought that the first amendment being placed first in the Bill of Rights would give it significant weight. Yet two recent actions, one in the capitol and another in the New York Senate, threaten to upend the freedoms Americans enjoy.
Last month, in a Senate Judiciary meeting, a new media shield law – the Free Flow of Information Act – was passed through the committee. It’s not yet law, as committee is merely one of the hurdles that a measure must pass in order to eventually be made law. Yet the bill would, in effect, allow a judge to decide who is defined as a member of the press and thus allowed to receive protection from the government in cases where reporters are asked to give up confidential sources.
How would it be decided who is a member of the press? The bill says that one would have had to work for a major media organization at present or recently. Considering how often the term “blogger in their pajamas” has been thrown around, this seems to be a pushback against new media and technology. Moreover, those standards would not have been met by Thomas Paine, a patriot from the American revolution who distributed pamphlets.
This did not stop Senator Dianne Feinstein from declaring that “the first amendment is a state granted privilege not a right.” Someone really ought to tell the Senator that the First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, not the Bill of Governmental Favors to People it Hasn’t Put in Jail Yet.
This is not the only recent threat to the first amendment. In New York, the state senate is drafting legislation against cyberbullying. It aims to make actions that attack someone online punishable by law. A group of senators have said that the problem stems from too broad a definition of freedom of speech. They said they wish to better refine our understanding of the First Amendment to prosecute Internet bullies. Of course, by more refined, they mean open to revocation by the government.
As a reader of history, I can’t help but laugh at the terrible road we’re going down. The U.S. faced this very problem back at the turn of the century in the 1800s. When John Adams was president, he favored the old British definition of free speech which held that, while everyone is allowed to say what they want, the government can charge them with libel or sedition. Thomas Jefferson won the next election, in 1800, and it’s thanks to him that we understand freedom of speech as the right to speak freely. I say that, given recent events, our government needs a history lesson.