There is a very good reason why the freedom of speech, and of the press, from government intrusion is delineated in the very first amendment to the Constitution. Our nation's founders knew from history and their own experiences with King George III that the ability to freely criticize one's government is vital in attempting to stave off the despotism of political power and ambition.
This is why the recently abandoned Federal Communications Commission study that would have inserted government monitors into newsrooms was so disturbing. Before public and media outrage compelled the FCC to ditch the intrusive survey, it planned to "grill news reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run," according to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai's whistle-blowing op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal.
As Mr. Pai revealed, "First, the agency selected eight categories of 'critical information' such as the 'environment' and 'economic opportunities,' that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their 'news philosophy' and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information."
While participation in the study would have been voluntary, Mr. Pai pointed out that many news broadcasters would have felt pressured to cooperate because the FCC issues broadcast licenses, which must be renewed every eight years. Even more disturbing, the study would have included newspapers, even though the FCC lacks the authority to regulate print media.
While we are encouraged that public pressure was able to quash this attempt at "newsroom policing," the fact that it was not only considered but approved by senior members of a government agency is chilling and offensive to the whole notion of the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
What is worse, this is but the latest example of the current administration's disdain for privacy and the First Amendment, which includes spying on journalists at organizations such as the Associated Press and Fox News, prosecuting more whistle-blowers than all previous administrations combined and snooping on its own citizens.
It is no wonder that, despite the purported sanctity in America of the freedom of the press, the United States ranks 46th in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2014, below countries such as Costa Rica, Ghana, Portugal and El Salvador. As the report noted, "Both the U.S. and U.K. authorities seem obsessed with hunting down whistle-blowers instead of adopting legislation to rein in abusive surveillance practices that negate privacy, a democratic value cherished in both countries."
This woeful First Amendment record must be reversed so that efforts like the FCC study never see the light of day. Though it may appear merely self-serving for a newspaper to advocate for the protection of the freedom of the press, our denunciation of such violations of this right as the FCC's planned encroachment stems from a passion that only the joy of exercising one's rights on a daily basis can bring. We hope our readers take an equal measure of pride in exercising their First Amendment rights.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER