Protection for journalists is worth the fight

David Baxley

Baxley Bites

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina member and Associate Professor at Francis Marion University

Ben jacobs The Guaridan
Ben Jacobs

On the day before a special election in Montana last year, Ben Jacobs was in the middle of interviewing Greg Gianforte. Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, pressed the Republican candidate on a wide range of issues including legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act. Gianforte told the reporter, “I’m sick and tired of you guys.” Other journalists who were in the room witnessed the candidate body-slam the reporter. Gianforte yelled at Jacobs to, “Get the hell out of here.”

A month later, after winning the election, he pleaded guilty to a charge of misdemeanor assault. He was sworn-in a few days after his guilty plea. The judge in the case ordered no jail time, but Gianforte paid a fine and was sentenced to community service.

WTVRLast August, protesters insisted on not allowing a WTVR CBS 6 journalist to record protests in Richmond, Virginia. The protesters took the streets to demand the removal of Confederate monuments in that city. After protesters told the journalist to quit recording, the journalist was attacked – even though he was on public property. The journalist required medical attention after being struck in the head with some sort of blunt object.

Just weeks before, President Trump tweeted a mock video of himself striking and punching a man with a CNN logo instead of his head. The tweet seemed to encourage his supporters to attack the media – not only with disparaging words but also physically. Since his Inauguration, Trump has made it a point to call out several news organizations, labeling some as “fake news.” Trump went so far as to tell CNN reporter Jim Acosta to sit down at a press conference, calling his organization “fake news.”

During a speech to his supporters in Cincinnati Monday, Trump sarcastically said, “We’re also thrilled to have had a lot of the fake news media in the back, those cameras are rolling…” Some would argue President Trump has given the green light to attack journalists – verbally and physically. In such a volatile political climate, journalists find themselves caught between providing information protected by the First Amendment and fearing for their lives.

“We’re also thrilled to have had a lot of the fake news media in the back, those cameras are rolling…” said President Trump

The Supreme Court, on numerous occasions, has explicitly expressed in court rulings the incumbent responsibility of the press to be watchdogs of government. That responsibility is protected in the words our Founding Fathers wrote in the First Amendment. It is a journalist’s job to question authority. It is a journalist’s job to uncover wrongdoing. It is a journalist’s job to bring citizens’ concerns to elected officials. It’s a journalist’s job to find out the reasons for being attacked – because usually there is some sort a motive. Recently, motives come from political rhetoric.

Justices in the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case recognized the press must be protected in order to further debate on issues of public importance. In the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, the Justices said that any prior restraint on the press was fundamentally undemocratic. One could take that decision to mean that any tactic to prevent a journalist from doing his or her job – through physical attacks and intimidation – would be fundamentally undemocratic.

Representative Eric Swalwell
U.S. Representative Eric Swalwell (D-15)

Now comes legislation introduced by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) that would make attacks on reporters a federal crime. The Journalist Protection Act would add protection for journalists simply doing their jobs. If passed, those who assault journalists in the process of newsgathering could face fines and jail time. Importantly, Swalwell’s bill looks to prevent anyone from intentionally blocking a journalist from doing his or her job by intimidation.

You can read the legislation here:

Rebecca Baker
Rebecca Baker

On Monday, Society of Professional Journalists National President Rebecca Baker applauded Rep. Swalwell for sponsoring a bill to protect journalists, saying, “This legislation, if passed, will go a long way in protecting journalists who find themselves becoming targets because of the current climate. The rhetoric being spewed by some people in positions of power is dangerous to those covering the news — from small towns to large cities throughout our country and the world. It has to stop.” 

“The rhetoric being spewed by some people in positions of power is dangerous to those covering the news — from small towns to large cities throughout our country and the world. It has to stop.” – Rebecca Baker

It is an election year. Passage of a bill will require approval from Congress. All Americans should be interested in the well-being of reporters so that our democratic processes can continue unimpeded. We need information in order to be know what is happening in our nation, in our state, and in our community. Lawmakers who don’t support this legislation should be questioned as to their motives. They must be questioned about their love for this country and about their reluctance to support a bill that would protect the First Amendment. After all, the freedom of the press will keep our democracy flourishing. Protection for journalists is worth the fight!

David Baxley
David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website,

Society of Professional Journalists

Twitter  @spj_3