Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The birthday of our country this week (as defined by the enactment of the Declaration of Independence) compels us to ask ourselves how we’re living up to the ideals presented by those who committed “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” 237 years ago.
One week ago, this page (note its name) of your favorite weekly newspaper printed a column by the president of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists chronicling the ways government bodies and politicians were interfering in journalists’ First Amendment rights.
The list included the attempt to evict the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from the UW–Madison campus (an attempt that failed when Gov. Scott Walker vetoed it from the state budget), the Obama administration’s targeting the Associated Press and a Fox News reporter, a Republican state representative refusing to speak to reporters while campaigning for superintendent of public instruction, both U.S. Senate campaigns of last year physically separating reporters from their candidates, and the state Democratic Party’s refusing to allow two reporters to cover their convention because the party didn’t like the reporters’ work.
Since then, those of us who are affiliated with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association have been asked to sign an online petition asking Wisconsin’s attorney general to reaffirm a 2008 opinion about which personal records should be redacted from police reports and which should not be. The WNA reports that 41 police and sheriff’s departments (none, fortunately, in this area) have been removing such details as names and addresses from police reports. (The petition, for those who want to sign it, is at http://www.change.org/petitions/wisconsin-attorney-general-j-b-van-hollen-reaffirm-2008-opinion-related-to-the-driver-s-privacy-protection-act?goback=.gde_2063439_member_252561989.)
It is remarkable to me that some law enforcement agencies haven’t figured out that the media can help the police. (Your favorite weekly newspaper’s Facebook page has run a few items when police are looking for an unidentified person in connection with incidents; the number of resulting Facebook hits and shares is enlightening to see.) Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I have to think there is some deterrent value in having public misbehavior publicly reported.
It’s also remarkable that in these 41 cases, the people we pay to enforce the law (which includes the Open Records Law) are violating the law instead. Court records are public records. Taxpayers have the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent in one of the most fundamental areas of government, public safety.
Perhaps politicians engaged in a war against the media figure that there is little downside to separating journalists from what they want to know, because journalists aren’t very popular with the public. Here’s the thing, though: The First Amendment doesn’t apply only to journalists. The First Amendment applies to every American, in the same way that the state Open Meetings and Open Records laws are for every Wisconsinite, not just journalists.
Perhaps politicians have figured out that there’s not a whole of respect for freedom of expression in general today. The more accurate way to term what the First Amendment seems to apply to today is freedom of expression (as long as you agree with my point of view). Those who do not agree with your point of view get cut off and shut off — canceling subscriptions, or hitting the off switch, or sticking their fingers in the ears and making enough noise to not hear a contrary point of view. Liberals watch MSNBC; conservatives watch Fox News. (I watch neither, by the way.)
Part of this may be the nature of our current winner-take-all politics, where the goal of politicians is not to convince those who don’t necessarily agree with them, but to drum up the support (including votes and campaign contributions) of their political base.
Readers of this column appear to have figured out my general political world view. But as someone who has written opinions for a quarter century, I would never argue that opinions that haven’t been tested against counterarguments are worth very much.
Here’s a current local example: Our SWNews4u.com website ran a poll over the past couple weeks asking whether governmental meetings should begin with the Pledge of Allegiance. The vote totals as of Monday morning:
I don’t know: 2.
The SWNews4U poll is not scientific. But a poll in which 87 percent of those with an opinion answer one way seems rather definitive to me. And yet no Platteville alderman or city official has stated publicly why Common Council meetings do not or should not start with the Pledge of Allegiance. One wonders why.
Disagreement is not a bad thing. The disagreements that took place during the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the creation of our Constitution were nasty even by today’s standards. But the Founding Fathers figured out how to merge contrary viewpoints into what has become the last, best hope for democracy on Earth. If we respect what they did, we should respect the rights of others to have different viewpoints from our own, and argue them respectfully.