The first amendment of the US Constitution explicitly states that the government cannot abridge the rights of the free press. However, this has not stopped politicians and the courts from trying to see just how far they can challenge those rights. In recent news, the government has been accused on trying to abridge these rights again.
In the first case, prosecutors in California have filed 15 felony charges against a pair of anti-abortion activists that secretly recorded meetings with representatives of Planned Parenthood. The activists released videos from these recording and accused Planned Parenthood of selling aborted fetal tissue for profit. The videos were selectively edited to make it appear that Planned Parenthood was acting illegally. In response to these videos, a number of investigations into Planned Parenthood were conducted and none have not found any wrongdoing. Additionally, these videos have been used as justification by conservatives to stop funding Planned Parenthood.
The second case involves Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks organization. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stated that his Justice Deparment is making the arrest of Assange a priority. It is not clear as to the nature of the charges that the Justice Department will pursue. It is believed that the charges will avoid first amendment entanglements. Assange, who has been hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid rape allegations, has released thousands of illicitly leaked documents (many of which originated from Russia).
In both cases, journalists have denounced the actions of the government claiming that these are cases where the freedom of the press is being attacked. This raises the question as to whether or not legitimate journalists are being punished for doing their jobs.
In the case of the anti-abortion activists, the allegations are that the videos that they recorded violated the law because California is a two-party consent state and they did not have permission to make the recordings. The activists and their supporters claim that the charges are politically motivated and that they are protected as journalists.
The problem with the activist’s argument is that real journalists are not supposed to create narratives from whole cloth. There is a term for this: yellow journalism. What they did may or may not be legal but it certainly was not ethical.
In the case of Assange, his organization publishes leaked documents. In some cases, the documents were leaked to him by people within the US government. In other cases, such as the Clinton campaign emails, the documents were obtained through illegal means. The means by which these emails were obtain is not unlike what happened in Watergate. Someone broke into someone else’s property and stole them.
Additionally, WikiLeaks has been working with Russia in an effort to attack and weaken the United States. To a point, one can argue that WikiLeaks is an agent of a foreign government and is not protected by the Constitution as Assange is not an US citizen.
Let us be frank about one aspect of journalists. They have an entitlement mentality. They believe that being members of the free press entitles them to certain protections and privileges that are not afforded non-journalists. They believe that they are above the law and should be allowed to break it to reveal corruption. They believe that they are entitled to unfettered access to public figures.
While it is reasonable to say that journalist do need some additional protections to be able to do their jobs without fear, how far should these protections extend? Should these protections extend to journalists who create stories from whole cloth, act unethically, or publish documents that were obtained through criminal actions?