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Never doubt the reality and power
of the First Amendment

Posted by on Mar 5, 2018 in Blog, Law and Ethics, Teaching | 0 comments

by Stan Zoller, MJE
It’s a staple of any journalism curriculum.

It’s on T-shirts.

It’s on ties.

It’s on posters and protestor’s signs.

It’s on our minds.

But is it in our hearts?

It is the First Amendment.

Attention to the First Amendment has escalated lately with the number of walkouts and demonstrations by students in wake of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 

It is another case, tragic as it is, of people – not just students – rallying around the First Amendment when it becomes a necessary tool. Fact is, the First Amendment needs to be front and center all the time.

Far too often scholastic journalists use the First Amendment to celebrate various special events like Constitution Day or Scholastic Journalism Week, which make sense as the First Amendment is the foundation which enables journalists, scholastic, collegiate or professional, to practice their craft.

Unfortunately, fear sometimes creates a roadblock for the practice of the First Amendment. All too often journalism educators quiver over the possibility of running a “controversial story” because they may get in trouble with their administration.

As difficult as it may seem, more journalism educators – and student journalists – need to take that chance and tell their administrators that scholastic media’s job goes beyond reporting on Muffy and Chip who were selected Homecoming Queen and King.

As difficult as it may seem, more journalism educators – and student journalists – need to take that chance and tell their administrators that scholastic media’s job goes beyond reporting on Muffy and Chip who were selected Homecoming Queen and King.

Here’s where the challenge comes in.  Don’t just tell people you have First Amendment rights – practice them.

Fear is a great motivator by many school administrators. We should overcome that fear by using the First Amendment.

As journalism educators we need to teach students to emulate the work of leading reporters who don’t live in fear by practicing the First Amendment.

Like Jamie Kalven. That’s probably not a name many, or if I dare say, most scholastic journalism educators will recognize. Kalven is, a writer and human rights activist. His work has appeared in a variety of publications. In recent years, he has reported extensively on patterns of police abuse and impunity in Chicago. He is director of the Invisible Institute (invisible.institute.org), which, as noted on its website, “… is a journalistic production company on the South Side of Chicago. Our mission is to enhance the capacity of citizens to hold public institutions accountable …”

Kalven’s background (Kalven background) is beyond impressive, as is his work. He has gained notoriety for pursuing the release of the dash cam video of Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke who allegedly shot Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times.

Kalven’s work related to police actions has received national attention and earned him numerous awards.

But what recently propelled him into a First Amendment fight was a subpoena he received as part of Van Dyke’s trial which, in Kalven’s words, demanded that “I answer questions about the whistleblower whose tip prompted me to investigate the fatal 2014 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.”

Kalven, in an article, “The First Amendment Transcends the Law. It Gives Us Strength In Dark Times” notes that a major thrust of the intent of the subpoena was that he had received documents about the dash cam video “… to seek to compel me to testify on the basis of their claim, for which they offered no evidence, that the source had given me documents protected under the Garrity rule, which protects public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves during internal investigations conducted by their employers.”

Kalven writes that “From the outset, I made it clear that I had received no Garrity-protected documents and that I would refuse to answer any questions that might reveal the identity of the source. There was nothing heroic about this stance. It was not a choice. I was simply doing my job as a reporter.”

Read that last line again: “There was nothing heroic about this stance. It was not a choice. I was simply doing my job as a reporter.”

Which is what journalism teachers need to teach their students.  Kalven’s piece, which can be found at Kalven article is an amazing tale of the court battle surrounding his subpoena. It is an outstanding teaching aid and journalism adviser and educators should incorporate it into their First Amendment curriculum.

How did Kalven’s subpoena battle work out?

As he describes it: “In the end, the hearing proved anticlimactic. Gaughan (Judge Vincent Gaughan) distributed a written order quashing the subpoena. He did not reach the issue of reporter’s privilege. “To uphold the subpoena of Jamie Kalven,” he wrote, “would be nothing more than a fishing expedition in search of information that the timeline of events, discovery documents, and testimony suggest simply does not exist.”

And, writes Kalven, “The ruling has been hailed as a victory for freedom of the press.”

Which, when all is said and done, is what we are all striving for.

“If civic courage is a social value, rather than an individual endowment, then we have the capacity to generate it — to give each other heart for the intensifying struggle to preserve First Amendment freedoms that lies ahead. Speaking as a grateful beneficiary of that dynamic, I have no doubt of its reality and its power.”–Jamie Kalven

Kalven’s article doesn’t end there. He details the impact and importance of the First Amendment in his walk-off in which he notes:

“If civic courage is a social value, rather than an individual endowment, then we have the capacity to generate it — to give each other heart for the intensifying struggle to preserve First Amendment freedoms that lies ahead. Speaking as a grateful beneficiary of that dynamic, I have no doubt of its reality and its power.”

Its reality and its power – journalism educators need to factor that into their lessons on the First Amendment.  Its importance goes beyond posters, t-shirts and merely memorizing the 45 words.

In the end, it comes down to two things:  its reality and its power.

 

Additional resources:

About Jamie Kalven:  Kalven background

About the Invisible Institute: invisible.institute.org

Kalven’s article: The First Amendment Transcends the Law. It Gives Us Strength in Dark Times

A guide to Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws: FOI and Sunshine Law Info.

 

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