Juli Metzger: First Amendment is about more than journalism

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint

As we wrap up Sunshine Week, an annual recognition of the importance of open government, I cannot help but reflect on our imperfect union and that the free flow of fact-based news continues to hit roadblocks in this age of misdirection and disinformation. Fake news, if you will.

But whatever obstacles we encounter in the United States serve as warnings to what we could face if they are left unchecked. U.S. press operations have pulled out of Russia after journalists covering the invasion of Ukraine were threatened, leaving only government-regulated propaganda.

The former American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) launched Sunshine Week in 2005 as a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. The week-long celebration is held every March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment provides us with great protection from government interference for what we say and write, particularly on political issues or matters of public interest. We should remember that the nation’s founders created those protections to allow for what the U.S. Supreme Court has called “robust and vigorous” debate. In 2002, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”

These days, as we witness what it means to be silenced and without recourse, we should think about those words—and why the founders and the nation ratified the First Amendment’s five freedoms during a period of great division and debate not unlike that of today. Unfettered flow of information and access to government is for each of us, not just members of the press, which led to a timely discussion this week on that very topic.

Last October, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita banned Abdul-Hakim Shabazz from covering his press conferences, saying he wasn’t an “actual journalist.” The ACLU in February filed a lawsuit claiming Rokita’s office violated Shabazz’s First Amendment rights. Rokita later denied Shabazz’s open-records request asking for an explanation from Rokita as to why he was banned. Just this month, Rokita filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Shabazz is editor and publisher of IndyPolitics.org, a well-established digital news source for politics in Indiana. He was joined in a panel discussion at Ball State University this week by The Indianapolis Star’s Statehouse reporter, Kaitlin Lange, as well as Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association, and Amelia Dieter McClure, HSPA’s incoming executive director. The event, sponsored by the College of Communication, Information and Media, featured the question: “Who is a journalist and why it matters.”

Our rights, including the right to free speech, don’t exist if they’re not defended. And defending basic freedoms—even when a group besides our own is in the crosshairs—benefits everyone by making sure the protections of our basic rights remain strong.•

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Metzger is an associate lecturer at the School of Journalism and Strategic Communication, and former president and publisher of The Star Press and executive editor for digital at The Indianapolis Star.

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One thought on “Juli Metzger: First Amendment is about more than journalism

  1. The people should not be concerned the “Government” is limiting speech and debate. For some reason the mainstream media in the US is doing a great job of it. Anything that doesn’t fit the liberal narrative is ignored, gas lit or otherwise repressed. We all saw that just this week the Hunter laptop story, denied by the MSM for 2 years is actually factual. Scary stuff when the “free” media” is determined to front a political party. And yes, this is the evidence of “Fake News” which most people now trust less than politicians. God help us all.

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