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Tuesday, June 1, 2010
From the President

Don't take a free press for granted; protecting the right is a daily struggle

By Kevin Z. Smith

The voice on the other end of the phone was barely discernable. The broken English coupled with the static made it almost too difficult to do the interview properly.

The reporter was from an Iraqi magazine. He had called me months earlier to talk about a U.S. federal shield law. This time he wanted to talk at length about the role of a free press in an emerging democracy.

The interview was one part questions, two parts commentary. He was seeking affirmation from the president of SPJ that the Iraqi press’ role in developing the democracy was a key piece of the giant political puzzle. I couldn’t blame him for being a little outside the lines of bias. Imagine trying to build a free and responsible press from the ashes of a strong-armed dictatorship.

At one point I said that the defense of a free press is a daily battle, even in a country like the United States with more than 200 years of practice. There are constant assaults on press rights, but I said it’s always worth the fight and never blink in battle for fear that a right might disappear.

In retrospect, the interview couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The week had been one where issues of press rights and fights were foremost in my mind. At James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., police armed with a search warrant stormed into the student newspaper office and confiscated more than 600 photos student photographers had taken at a social event that turned into a riot. The county prosecutor made no apologies that she was there to use the press as an instrument of her law enforcement office. She wanted the photos to prosecute students who could be identified in the photos.

Despite an obvious breach of the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 that states subpoenas, not warrants, are the legal instrument of choice when dealing with newsrooms, the items remained away from The Breeze staff until outside media groups intervened.

SPJ sprung into action and sent the prosecutor a letter condemning her action and posing a legal challenge. I was interviewed six times by radio, TV and newspapers, and I participated in a talk radio program on the subject.

During this same time, SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund Committee handed $1,000 to a small community newspaper in Shepherdstown, W.Va. The paper was fighting the county commission over a petition that lead to a change in government policy. The commission said the names on the petition, used as an official legal document, were private. The paper is challenging that in the West Virginia State Supreme Court.

To cap off my week, I received a phone call from a newsletter group asking SPJ to fight for transcripts from upcoming interviews with miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine South in Montcoal, W.Va. Until the George W. Bush administration, transcripts with miners after disasters were made available to the press. That stopped in 2002 as the feds tried to minimize the amount of information available to the public. The call was to ask SPJ to intervene with its Freedom of Information Committee and legal support to push this new administration for transparency and a reversal of that old White House mandate.

Even here at my university, the assault of the student press is constant. For more than a year the students and I have battled against certain members of the academic administration who have taken over our budget and tried to regulate the student press. Attempts have been made to rewrite the student press handbook to give more authority to the administration. We’ve been advised how many editions to produce and how many papers to print. The editors have been told the student newspaper website has to be placed on the university-run server, and last week I was informed that I no longer had authority to decide the salaries of my student journalists. Every step of the way we have pushed back and fought for our rights.

The battle to allow a press to do its job of informing the public isn’t one that’s reserved for developing nations with warring factions. It’s evident right here and now in our Land of Democracy. Whether it’s school administrators, members of Congress or tiny-town bureaucrats, we must always cross swords with those who want to steal the rights of the press and ultimately that of the people.

I know how my Iraqi friend feels. The reason we’ve had more than 200 years of press rights is because we’ve had to fight every day for more than 200 years to keep them. Be assured the fight goes on, and it’s one we cannot lose or ever grow tired of. Freedom and democracy depend on us, just like in Iraq.

SPJ President Kevin Z. Smith is a journalist and educator with more than 30 years in the profession. He served as president-elect in 2008-09, secretary-treasurer in 2007-08 and Region 4 director in 2006-07. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Fairmont State University and spent 20 years in newspapers as a reporter and editor before moving to academics.

To contact Kevin Z. Smith, call (304) 367-4864 or e-mail ksmith@spj.org

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