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Saturday, October 3, 2009
Diversity Toolbox

Press freedom in Indian Country

By Rebecca J. Tallent

Jim Gray may be the youngest chief in Osage Nation history, but he is dealing with a complex old battle: press freedom in Indian Country.

A former journalist and co-publisher of the Native American Times, Gray told the Native American Journalists Association on Aug. 1 about vetoing part of the new Osage Constitution, which contained provisions for free speech and free press. He said the veto was difficult but necessary because of conflicts with Osage law and his belief that it “jumps ahead of prior restraint” in the constitution. Compounding the situation is the override of the veto by Osage Congress, a move that caused Gray to ask for a constitutional review of the new law.

The Osage are typical of many American Indian nations: While the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 grants tribes the same freedoms in the Bill of Rights, each sovereign nation must decide which rights it wants to incorporate. In the case of the Osage, the tribal congress agreed to press and speech rights, but set up roadblocks by adding oversight language that would restrict the freedoms.

In September 2008, the tribal court agreed with Gray and said the free speech/free press provisions violated the tribe’s constitution. At that ruling, Gray said the congress voted to cut the newspaper’s funding. The debate has continued, and the case will soon be the first one to be heard by the Osage Nation’s new Supreme Court.

Gray said the case may take another year or two to be resolved, but he repeated his support for free press and free speech.

“The newspaper’s funds have been restored, and I have issued Executive Order 0903 declaring the press free of any authority in the executive branch,” he said. “The order declared the newspaper free and independent, and it must adhere to the national standards of ethics.”

But why would a former journalist veto a free press measure in the first place? Gray told the NAJA conference in Albuquerque, N.M., there were specific issues of the free press/free speech provisions that violated the new constitution, plus there’s a question of how funding for the tribe’s newspaper could be handled under the law. He termed the situation “very troubling” regarding trust from his people and adhering to the new constitution. The final situation may determine who controls the tribe’s newspaper, he said.

Gray said the current control issue stems back to the issue of how the paper is to be funded, and under current Osage law, the congress must approve any use of tribal funds. For example, he said, that means that if the newspaper accepts advertising or wants to sponsor an event, the tribal congress must be called back in session to approve paying bills or making any type of purchase.

Then there is the issue of what type of newspaper the tribe wants.

“Right now, we don’t know which would be a better model, the Navajo or the Cherokee, because there are issues with both,” Gray said.

Visit spj.org/diversity for more resources on diversifying your news coverage.

Under the Navajo model, the Navajo Times newspaper is separated from the tribe and run as an independent organization. Under Cherokee law, the tribe has an Independent Press Act that prohibits editorial interference from the chief or tribal council, said Denny McAuliffe, director of Reznet, a University of Montana-led American Indian news Web site that trains young journalists, and a member of the special press council created by Gray.

“Our first law was closely modeled after the Cherokee, but the Cherokee law has never been tested,” McAuliffe said. “Making the newspaper a private, for-profit entity (like the Navajo) may not be feasible. We wanted it to be a nonprofit entity.”

Gray, who comes from the for-profit side of American Indian news, said he understands how difficult for-profit can be, noting the tribe can get out of a newspaper only what it puts into the publication.

“The model that may work is to run it independently, but the dollars in and out is a problem,” Gray said. “Under our Treasury Act, all money invested into the Osage Nation cannot be spent unless approved by Congress. This is a special matter not addressed in this appeal. We’re at a stalemate.”

McAuliffe said both sides of the debate say they want free press and free speech; the issue is how to best get there.

“The Crow Tribe adopted an L3C status, a low-profit lower liability company, which is a hybrid that is both non- and for-profit,” McAuliffe said. “The nonprofit side can give seed money as the start-up, and then it becomes an LLC. It is something we would like to see happen for our newspaper.”

In the meantime, interim editor Shannon Shaw said she “feels positive that good things will happen” in the future for the Osage News.

“We are exercising our free press muscle right now,” she said, noting the paper has criticized Chief Gray and others in its columns, and continues to publish print and online versions of the newspaper for tribal members.

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