Over the next several months, Scroll will deliver a series on the First Amendment. Scroll will analyze how the rights promised in the constitution have developed over time and what its future looks like. This article is a part of the review of freedom of the press.
The constitution’s first amendment prevents law from prohibiting free expression, which includes speech and press. America’s drive for a free press began when the British government censored American colonies’ media that was critical of the government, and Virginia was eventually the first colony to declare, “The freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”
Free press laws do not differ significantly in Idaho from the rest of the United States. In terms of “recording law,” Idaho and most states are “one-party consent,” meaning that one is legally allowed to record a conversation if they are a contributor. If they are recording a conversation they are not a part of, they need the consent of at least one party.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, you may photograph anything that occurs in plain view in public spaces, which is protected by constitutional right. This includes recording police officers.
However, Idaho has faced its own unique challenges regarding whistleblowers. Despite an Idaho Statute that protects public employees from facing retribution for whistleblowing violation of laws or regulations, a number of whistleblower controversies have arisen.
In 2011, an Idaho National Laboratory worker named Ralph Stanton found out that he was exposed to substantial levels of airborne radiation because the facility had stopped using a necessary detector due to cost. Stanton was exposed to 5.5 million disintegrations per minute or dpm.
“Anything over 20 dpm is considered very contaminated,” said Stanton to the Idaho Statesman.
After experiencing sickness, Stanton got retested. The Idaho National Laboratory doctor told him that his symptoms were from influenza. Stanton explained that the INL immediately attempted “retribution” and looked for various ways to terminate his employment until he was eventually fired. He found out soon after that the INL had prior knowledge of the defective equipment, which he said made him feel betrayed in the article by the Idaho Statesmen.
According to The Center for Public Integrity, Stanton faced hostility after attempting to obtain the full details and documents on their contamination levels and workplace practices. Furthermore, two of the exposed workers including Stanton were not allowed to keep the initial urine data that showed their radiation levels were “five times the annual federal occupational dose limit, 212 times the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limit, and 2,650 times the annual federal dose limit for the public.”
Last year, the State of Idaho also paid $545,000 of taxpayers’ money in a settlement to James Cryer, a former Labor Department worker who was allegedly fired in retaliation for whistleblowing about “purchasing and hiring violations.”
On a national level, the debate surrounding freedom of the press is ongoing.
President Donald Trump has made headlines for his criticism of the U.S. media. The American Bar Association reports that “the concern is that constant attacks on the veracity of the press may hurt credibility and cause hostility toward reporters trying to do their jobs. The concern is also that if ridicule of the news media becomes acceptable in this country, it helps to legitimize cutbacks on freedom of the press in other parts of the world as well.”
Furthermore, the line between private ownership and publicly protected free speech is increasingly blurred, according to the same report by the American Bar Association.
“Another newly emerging aspect of the public-private line is the use of social media communications by public officials,” says Stephen Wermiel of the ABA in the report. “Facebook and Twitter are private corporations, not government actors, much like NFL team owners. But as one article exams in this issue, a federal court recently wrestled with the novel question of whether a public official’s speech is covered by the First Amendment when communicating official business on a private social media platform. In a challenge by individuals who were barred from President Trump’s Twitter account, a federal judge ruled that blocking access to individuals based on their viewpoint violated the First Amendment.”
With regards to whistleblowers and media freedom, the U.S. fought back against certain releases that were seen as damaging to national security. The Pentagon Papers exposed that the U.S. Government had misled the public about the degree of violence and loss of life in Vietnam, which implicated the administration of multiple presidents. In New York Times Co. v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media attempting to publish the Pentagon Papers.
Edward Snowden is known for whistleblowing the practices of the NSA that revealed previously unknown levels of government access into the data of their own citizens. Snowden currently resides in Russia under asylum due to the legal threat of the United States government against him.
Even with legal protections, the actual function of the free press can seem to contradict the ideal principles of what free speech/press really means, according to some experts. Noam Chomsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT and political critic, laid out a propaganda model to describe the function of the U.S. media in his book, Manufacturing Consent.
“We believe that what journalists do, what they see as newsworthy, and what they take for granted as premises of their work are frequently well explained by the incentives, pressures, and constraints incorporated into such a structural analysis,” Chomsky said of his research.
Manufacturing Consent centers around the notion that the interests of multinational corporations and the U.S. governments are intertwined in a way that necessitates a very small window of allowable opinion to be disseminated to the public, even if various media members or consumers are unaware of these forces working.
“The beauty of the system, however, is that such dissent and inconvenient information are kept within bounds and at the margins, so that while their presence shows that the system is not monolithic, they are not large enough to interfere unduly with the domination of the official agenda,” Chomsky explained in the book.
Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent in the 1980’s when the mainstream media was owned by about 50 companies. By the year 2000, about six companies owned the vast majority of the American media: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom, according to PBS.
Overall, the freedom of the press is something many rightfully consider to be a precious cornerstone of the United States — however, as some experts argue, that right needs to be continually fought for to be expanded and preserved.