This past December, federal judge Marco Hernandez of Oregon issued a ruling in the libel trial of Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox that has dangerous First Amendment implications.
Hernandez ruled that blogger Crystal Cox was not entitled to the same protection under media shield laws that other members of the press enjoy. This ruling made it easy for a jury to find her guilty of libel. That result threatens the First Amendment rights of all citizen-journalists.
With the Internet increasingly serving as the dominant source of information, a national debate has been taking place asking the question, who is a journalist? Legal scholars, journalism academics and First Amendment advocates all have their opinions and as expected, there is little agreement.
But why is this issue so complicated? Bloggers, like all citizens of the United States, have First Amendment rights. Has the definition of a journalist changed? Or has perception and therefore legal definition simply not adjusted to modern technology?
According to Professor Kyu Ho Youm of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, Judge Hernandez "ruled correctly" in the Cox case. But he also acknowledges that the ruling was based on his "textual interpretation" and that "pre-Internet law needs updating."
Youm offers a wake-up call to state legislators. Media shield laws must be revised to make clear that bloggers and all citizen-journalists deserve the same protection as the city hall beat-writer at the local newspaper.
This is especially important, as technology and new economic realities have forced newspapers all over the country to cut staff drastically and in many cases, close up shop. The public now relies on citizen-journalists to perform an invaluable service to our democracy -- serving as government watchdogs.
While I encourage the updating of media shield laws for the sake of clarity, it is important to realize that blogs and all new media outlets were granted journalism credentials in 1938.
In the case of Lovell v. City of Griffin (Ga.), Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes defined the press as, "every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion."
The delivery vehicle at the time of the ruling was a pamphlet being handed out by a Jehovah's Witness. I believe all reasonable people will agree that an electronic medium such as a website is at least on par with a sheet of paper when it comes to serving as a "vehicle of information and opinion."
Hughes' words appear to have fallen on deaf ears in state capitols and courtrooms. What cannot be misinterpreted is the will of the people. In the case of deciding who should be recognized as a journalist; bloggers, beat reporters, professors and all advocates of the First Amendment must speak with a unified voice and send a clear message to elected officials and the legal community -- bloggers and all citizen-journalists must have the same rights and protections as the rest of the journalism profession.
The non-profit group I lead, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, has launched an effort to organize the voices of news consumers and the journalism profession in a campaign called Protect Your Voice.
This project features an online petition that states:
"By signing the petition, you agree that citizen-Journalists and Bloggers should not be penalized for providing a valuable service to our country. Citizen-journalists and bloggers in every state deserve to be included in the state's shield laws and granted Freedom of the Press rights. By signing the petition below, you are helping bloggers get one step closer to the equal protection of journalists when reporting."
The Franklin Center contends that the drastic decline in statehouse reporters is a "threat to democracy." The news organization praises bloggers for filling this void and "informing their citizenry of its elected officials' actions." The organization goes on to advocate for citizen-journalists demanding "the same protections as reporters in the court room."
With the help of projects such as Protect Your Voice, media shield laws will hopefully be updated to reflect 21st century needs of the journalism profession.
Elected officials will not revise current laws on their own. Only the demands of a concerned citizenry about their First Amendment rights will bring about this necessary change.
Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.