Rights of journalists compromised

Editorial Staff

There’s never been a normal era or administration to be a journalist.

There’s no clear path to becoming a journalist, as demonstrated in the phrase “anyone can be a journalist,” and there’s no solid handbook for how to interact with one. The one constant in the equation, however, is the First Amendment.

Journalists have no additional rights compared to other citizens, and luckily the government has not recently tried to institute a license requirement. Despite this, there are other ways in which public agencies, the courts and extensions of the government have been at odds with the only civil servants dedicated to the public’s right to the truth.

Many people forget that public universities are held to the same standards as a public agency because they accept federal funding.

The Kernel’s dispute with the university over open records is evidence that public institutions often act in their own interests despite the expectation that they serve the public’s interests.

Legislators sometimes push the bounds of what is normal and lawful too, like when the mayor’s office of Lexington required journalists to request credentials to be on public streets during the annual State Street convergence, which sometimes requires use of the city’s police to tame the crowd.

The latest violation happened at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where a reporter for the university-owned NPR affiliate was fired after legislators accused her of not identifying herself at a meeting with high school students who protested a controversial bathroom bill, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The reporter, Jacqui Helbert, attended the meeting with her radio equipment, a boom microphone that she held over the heads of speakers and her NPR press pass that hung around her neck. Students who attended the meeting and were interviewed said that it was obvious that she was there as a reporter.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, university officials met with legislators after Helbert’s story was published and complained about the reporter’s journalistic ethics. The claim was that she never identified herself to them, even though Helbert said she had to fumble around with her microphone when she shook one of the state representative’s hands.

The claims of the legislators are baseless, and since they had the gall to mention in the public meeting that the state provides funding to the school they seem to have no understanding of the public and private domains as it applies to the rights of the public.

Helbert’s termination was an unconstitutional overreach by the public institution, and if it was indeed motivated by monetary pressure put on the school by the state as the statement insinuated, then the parties colluded against the public’s right to know.

Anyone with a passion to pursue the truth, good ethics, storytelling skills and a bit of resilience can be a journalist.

If one of the students attending the meeting had posted a recording of the meeting, photos or statements made by the representatives, would schools be asked to discipline the students for not asking permission and telling the lawmakers that they were on the record?

Tennessee, like Kentucky, requires that only one party needs to consent to the recording of a conversation, and so there was no unlawful action taken by the reporter.

In addition, she was obvious in her intentions at the meeting, and therefore could only believe that she was acting ethically.

The problem is that reporters’ ethics are determined by their audience and critics, and are by nature a subjective topic.

There is nothing to prevent a lawmaker from saying, “I don’t think she was ethical,” for ulterior motives — like if the report was critical of the representative, the reporter was a minority or if the report enlightened the public to an issue that had been kept quiet.

The Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that legislators’ politically motivated pushback against a newspaper they felt was a “hindrance” was unconstitutional.

It’s up to the public to protect its interests by holding public institutions accountable for their overreach and presumptuous behavior.

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