Freedom of the Press Is in the Eye of the Pen Holder

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The first week of March may seem long ago, at this point, but there’s still more to be said about an ignominious bill that went to a much-deserved death back then:

Several Rhode Island state senators have proposed a “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act” to ban the media from “selectively reporting” facts.

The legislation was proposed by Senators Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket; Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls; Ana Quezada, D-Providence; and Harold Metts, D-Providence.

In their legislation, the lawmakers acknowledge that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says the government “shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

But they make this argument in their bill:

“The state has a compelling interest to compel the press to promote the objective truth for the sake of the viability of democracy and for the safety, health, and welfare of our communities and in keeping with the spirit of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and to stop the press from serving as a slander machine.”

It’s hard not to believe that the legislators who signed on too this bill were punked, but the exercise does raise some interesting questions.  How is this different from proposed regulation of social media or campaign finance laws?  Citizens United was supposedly a democracy-killing outrage, so why is it outrageous for government to keep the media from “serving as a slander machine”?  Remember this the next time somebody proposes a “fairness doctrine” to impose requirements on talk radio or some conservative news venue.

What this episode may illustrate is that our politicians (in keeping with our times) are confused.  Even among the cubicles of the newsroom, censorship isn’t always and everywhere considered a bad thing.  It depends who is being censored and for what reason.

In this case, Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg lets her readers know that the person who requested the anti-slander-machine law probably deserved what he got.  After all, she writes, Chris Sevier is “an anti-gay and anti-abortion activist who at one point was accused of stalking country music star John Rich.”  Notably, Gregg just leaves the accusation of stalking floating out there with no context or information about its resolution.  The accusation is meant to imply guilt — if not of having broken the law, then of being an unsavory character who deserves Representative Diaz’s response that “if I knew, I would run ten-thousand-million miles away from that guy.”

But what if the legislation had been requested by a pro-trans activist or somebody of similar cultural import in our times?  One suspects that the clarity with which it is seen as unconstitutional would be, let’s just say, somewhat reduced.