ZACHARY: Lawmakers must stay engaged

DomeLight by Jim Zachary 

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s annual legislative breakfast in Atlanta is always enlightening, always thought provoking but this year it was more than a little bit scary. 

Moderator Peter Canfield did a masterful job setting the stage and moving the conversations to the most meaningful discussions that lawyers, journalists and lawmakers could have relevant to the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. 

State Sen. Jen Jordan, State Rep. Josh McLaurin and journalist James Salzer are smart, intuitive and even funny at times.

But Tom Clyde, one the state’s top First Amendment attorneys, was more scary than funny Thursday morning. 

Clyde gave a sober warning about the dangers of House Bill 734, Rep. Andy Welch’s media ethics bill.  

While the panel seemed to agree that Welch’s ill-conceived bill is dead on arrival in its present form, Clyde warned that provisions contained in the bill could be tacked on to some other piece of benign legislation and sneak its way onto the floor. 

Welch introduced the measure last year calling for state oversight of the media. He dropped the bill on the last day of the legislative session, and it remains alive for consideration this year.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Salzer, offered some real insight at the GFAF legislative breakfast when he said he had talked to each person who signed on to the Welch measure, and they all recounted some bad experience they had with the media. That is telling. 

This kind of assault on the media and attempt to squelch an open, free and unfettered press is an assault on freedom and the people of Georgia.  Journalists must always be able to operate completely independent of and unrestrained by the government. 

Journalists must always be free to operate as an independent watchdog, holding our public institutions accountable.  Any attorney, including Welch should understand such basic, fundamental principles. 

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press and Welch’s bill is simply unconstitutional. 

Everyone agrees the media should operate in an above board, ethical manner but that does not mean that government should ever have a role in regulating the press. 

The founders carefully enshrined the freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights and this media oversight bill flies in the face of that fundamental American liberty. 

This legislation would create some official code of ethics and a policing mechanism to control  the media, the very media that must hold government accountable. 

Could anything be more unconstitutional? 

CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta Daily Times and president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

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