ATLANTA– The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Georgia Chapter denounces HB734—the “Ethics in Journalism Act.”
The bill is clearly meant to intimidate journalists and chill the important work of holding powerful people and organizations accountable for their actions.
It is also in direct conflict with the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution which directs congress to “make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or the press.”
The founding fathers envisioned the free press as a fourth and final check on the government, a role we take seriously and already perform ethically every day.
Many professional organizations, including the SPJ, already have published Codes of Ethics to guide their members, so the provisions in the bill for a “Board of Journalism Ethics” to promulgate “Canons of Ethics” is redundant at best.
The most troublesome language in the bill comes under Article 2, which would force reporters to turn over full and unedited copies of any audio, video, or photographs taken during interviews. Journalists who refused could be fined $100 a day.
Most news organizations operate with limited budgets. Grave harm would result from even the threat of fines levied at reporters. How many editors might discourage their staff from doing interviews on tough subjects for fear of the economic consequence that might result from defending the work?
While the bill singles out journalists, it doesn’t define the term, and in practice could apply to virtually anyone using their cell phone to record anything from public meetings to police brutality.
Hypocritically, the bill would require journalists to turn over their work to anyone they’ve interviewed free of charge, while government agencies are allowed to charge steep fees to obtain public records, a practice that often keeps government actions secret when newsrooms on limited budgets can’t afford the costs.
The bill would also hold journalists to a higher standard than the legislators who are proposing it. A 43-year-old court ruling exempts the Georgia General Assembly and its offices from open records requests. According to a survey by the Cause of Action Institute, only a minority of states—11 total—exclude their legislatures from public disclosure laws.
HB734 was filed on April 2, 2019, the last day of the Georgia legislative session. The timing of its introduction was strategic. Though no action was taken on the bill this session, it will remain eligible for passage next year.