We won’t stop

Every day, journalists around the world are threatened as attempts are made to thwart a free press. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported at least 54 of our brothers and sisters in journalism were killed last year. Many of those deaths where in war-ravaged areas like Syria. Other journalists were murdered in politically and religiously-divided regions. In the United States, four staff members of the Capital Gazette newspaper were ambushed last June in Annapolis, Maryland.

Photo above: Journalists go where the story is happening. “Reporters won’t stop at a brick wall. We won’t stop by being placed in handcuffs. We’ll find a way to find answers to uncover wrongdoings because we understand the law.” Supplied photo

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina President and columnist for SizingUpTheSouth.com, Assistant Professor of Mass Communication, Francis Marion University

These journalists shared a common goal: to inform their community about the world in which we live. We must become educated by journalists to make sense of our world. Oftentimes, reporters take on unpopular assignments – not to deceive and trick those in power. Rather, journalists work to educate the uninformed.

Kent Cooper, Executive Director of the Associated Press for many years, was a longtime advocate of the public’s right to know. More than fifty years ago, Cooper led the charge in a forceful argument about freedom of the press saying all countries should work to assume a free flow of ideas. In The Right to Know, Cooper believed fair and unbiased news was “the highest original moral concept ever developed in America and given to the world.”

Thomas Emerson, renowned First Amendment scholar, believed that if we truly believe we must have information in order to exist, there must be a moral obligation for that to happen. In this country, the First Amendment is the beginning of all other rights of a democratic society.

But, earlier this week, in one felled swoop, the Columbia (South Carolina) Housing Authority ignored the right of the press to gather information and receive public documents. Two reporters from WLTX 19 in Columbia were handcuffed while attempting to look at public documents after the deaths of two men at the Allen Benedict Court apartments. As WLTX reported previously, the coroner confirmed the men died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning in their units on January 17. But how? That’s what the reporters wanted to know. Last week, the reporters were able examine public documents at a Housing Authority building where public records are kept.

But, when the reporters returned to the building that houses the public documents on Tuesday, January 29, the reporters were placed in handcuffs by Columbia Housing Authority police officers and were placed in handcuffs. The officers accused the reporters of trespassing, even though the media had been invited onto the property days before.

The police officers even blocked the reporters from leaving the property, as seen on video the reporters captured on video while attempting to exit. Another reporter, on the scene at the time those two reporters were detained, said a male officer threatened to put her in handcuffs if she stepped foot on property. That threat could only be viewed as intimidation to get WLTX to leave – and prevent other news outlets from coming to the property.

All of this came following a press conference by Housing Authority officials after the deaths of the men at the complex. After the deaths, the executive director – on-camera – promised the media would be allowed to look at the Housing Authority’s public records. Photos: Jenna Kurzyna, top, and Susan Ardis. Supplied photo

Unfortunately, the brilliant belief by Kent Cooper of the public’s right to know was led down an all-too-familiar path: the denial of open records.  Prior restraint is often used to prevent journalists from doing their job. Those who work in a position of power try to prevent journalists, who may be hot on the trail of potentially damaging information, from reporting information found in those records.

While the investigation continues into the deaths of the two men, no evidence of any wrong doing by anyone at the Columbia Housing Authority has been discovered. Moreover, the Columbia Housing Authority issued an apology to WLTX. No charges were filed against the reporters and neither reporter was taken to jail.

Government agencies’ attempting to block information is nothing new. Some officials fear the release of potentially embarrassing or damaging information could be uncovered. Arrogance of power is yet another force used by government agencies leading to secrecy.

In South Carolina, problems often involve those in power not being aware of the public records law or simply ignoring reporters’ requests. Intimidation can be considered a form of prior restraint; journalists being handcuff while doing their job could be considered a bold abuse of freedom of the press and an assault on the First Amendment.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has emphasized the checking value of the First Amendment, concluding the press serves as a watchdog of the government.  One of the main areas where limits of speech occurs is during a journalist’s pursuit in protecting individuals’ own First Amendment rights.

In the Pentagon Papers (1971), the Supreme Court recognized the purposes served by the First Amendment and the reasons the press is protected:

  • The Court recognized the important role of the press.  The Court said the press must be allowed to publish such material in order to fulfill its role in a democracy.
  • The dominant role of the First Amendment was to prohibit the government suppression of embarrassing information; secrecy in government is fundamentally undemocratic.
  • The Court said the information revealed the workings of government – exactly what the Founding Fathers meant for the First Amendment, against prior restraint of the press.

Journalists will be intimidated. Journalists will be told ‘no’ when requesting public documents. Journalists will face arrogance. Journalists will be handcuffed for trying to their job. Some may even be jailed because law enforcement officers do not know the law.

David Baxley

But the spirit of journalists everywhere is alive and well. Journalists don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Reporters won’t stop at a brick wall. We won’t stop by being placed in handcuffs. We’ll find a way to find answers to uncover wrongdoings because we understand the law. Perhaps government agencies, police officers, law enforcement officials, school boards, lawmakers and city councils need to remember the First Amendment gives journalists that right.

Rest assured, the Society of Professional Journalists stands with all journalists who work to expose cover ups by those who use tax payer dollars. SPJ will continue to work with journalists to question the actions of elected officials and those serving in official government capacities who are not upholding the law. And, most importantly, SPJ will always have the backs of reporters who are working to bring information to the communities they serve. After all, that’s what journalists do.

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and the president of SPJ South Carolina.  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, SizingUpTheSouth.com.