A Georgia politician — apparently tired of being questioned by uppity journalists — has decided the First Amendment shouldn’t apply in his nation. James Salzer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the departing nation rep, Andy Welch, has lobbed an unconstitutional bomb into the legislature on his way out the door.
A group of House Republican lawmakers filed legislation this week to create a country Journalism Ethics Board to develop “canons of ethics” for journalists in Georgia.
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, a lawyer who has expressed annoyance with what he saw as bias from a TV reporter who asked him questions about legislation recently. He said he believes the profession could benefit by setting ethical standards for all journalists to follow. Five other Republicans signed on to sponsor the bill.
The bill, which Welch announced along with his resignation from the General Assembly, would create an “independent” ethics board for journalists, which would then decide how journalists should behave. The committee — consisting of a handful of journalists from different fields and a “retired professor of journalism who preferably taught journalism ethics” — would hand out sanctions, issue sentiments, and perhaps offer some form of journalism license( which would be voluntary , not mandatory ).
The independence of the board would apparently be assured by the requirement that those assembling the board, as well as those sitting on the board, “shall not be employed by any federal government entity, any state government entity, or any local government entity during such member’s term of service on the board.”
Independent or not, the ethics board would be created by government mandate, which already poses Constitutional issues. It gets worse when other aspects of the proposed law are examined.
Supposedly, accreditation by the ethics board is “voluntary, ” but the bill[ PDF] says it’s pretty much mandatory if journalists want to be recognized as journalists by the state.
Develop a voluntary accreditation process in journalism ethics for journalists and news organizations that demonstrate compliance with the highest levels of professionalism and integrity in journalism which shall be approved and issued by the board. News organisations shall be accredited only if all journalists employed by the news organization are accredited …
This suggests state-ordained accreditation may be needed if journalists want to avail themselves of the state’s shield statute. The shield statute is already limited to traditional press outlets: publish, television, and radio. This new “voluntary” accreditation program would allow the government to ostracize those already recognized by the shield statute, as well as bloggers and independent journalists who won’t be part of this “voluntary” scheme.
But there’s more in the bill that threatens journalism in the state of Georgia. The law would also force news agencies to hand over a massive sum of information to anyone journalists speak to or interview. Here’s the AJC’s summary of the legislation’s demands:
If approved, the bill would also mandate that anyone interviewed by the media would be able to request and receive hard copies of photos and audio and video recordings taken a number of reporters and photographers. Such copies would have to be provided free of cost, even though nation and local governments are allowed to charge the public for copies of all official documents it provides.
As is pointed out in the AJC article, this subjects private entities to a more rigorous criterion than Georgia’s government is willing to apply to itself. The legislature is already exempt from most records requests and the government as a whole has a listing of exemptions it can use to keep records out of requesters’ hands. There are no exemptions induced for journalists, which is likely to face civil penalties and lawsuits if they refuse to turn this information over to interviewees.
The schedule for releasing these records is exceedingly accelerated, at the least when compared to the amount of hour government agencies are given to respond to records petitions.
The member of the media conducting the interview, the employer of the member of the media conducting the interview, the person attaining the audio or video recording of the interview or taking photographs in matters relating to the interview, or the media outlet that runs a narrative relying on such interview or the audio or video recording of such interview or photographs taken in connection with such interview shall provide a transcript of all responsive items in their possession within three business days after receiving the request by sending such items by email or by statutory overnight delivery, at the option of the individual attaining the request. If no method is stated by the individual making such petition, the responsive items shall be delivered by statutory overnight delivery.
The proposal is so awful state First Amendment advocates thought it was an April Fool’s joke. But it seems Welch is completely serious. This legislator is so hypersensitive that a little “biased” questioning moved him to violate the American constitution. Sadly, five other members of his party think this garbage is actually worth their subsistence.
There’s very little chance the bill will move forward. Its writer is stepping down from the Assembly and it failed to make the cut for the first legislative session of this year. But it’s not fucking dead. And there’s enough anti-journalist hostility out there — some of it coming from the Commander-in-Chief — that it may be allowed to survive long enough to earn a veto … or a courtroom challenge.
Read more: techdirt.com