First Amendment

Georgia Bill Would Mandate 'Journalism Ethics Board.' What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Journalists would be expected to pay up for government records, while handing over their own records to government officials for free.

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WGCL/screenshot

A Republican member of Georgia's General Assembly who was apparently upset over alleged media bias wants to regulate the news media.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Andy Welch (R–McDonough) on Tuesday would mandate the creation of a "Journalism Ethics Board." It would also force members of the media to comply with requests from interview subjects to provide, at no charge, the full, unedited versions of any relevant audio or video clips, as well as photographs. Journalists, essentially, would be expected to pay up for government records, while handing over their own records to government officials for free.

"That is not to say that the freedom to report is not there, it's just a question about what it means to be part of the press and whether or not there should be a set of canons of ethics that all members of media within the State of Georgia would be willing to live by," Welch told WGCL, explaining the reasoning behind the bill.

The legislation came after Welch claimed a TV reporter who asked him questions about separate legislation was biased, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The AJC also reported Welch was set to resign after the 2019 legislative session ended Tuesday. Reason reached out to Welch for comment on his bill, but did not hear back in time for publication.

The proposed law, titled the "Ethics in Journalism Act," is a doozy. The ethics board, it says, would consist of members of the media, as well as one retired journalism professor. Members would be chosen by a separate appointments board, which itself would be created by the University System of Georgia's chancellor.

Under Welch's bill, the ethics board's purpose would be open-ended. The legislation details some things it could, but would not be required, to do. These include things like creating "canons of ethics for journalism," establishing an accreditation process for journalists, and investigating complaints about alleged violations of the canons.

The legislation makes a point of emphasizing that the government would not be involved in the ethics board itself. It does not detail why the board is necessary, and its open-ended nature makes you question why the government needs to mandate its creation in the first place. Of course, there's always reason for concern when the government proposes any sort of new regulatory body, particularly one that would regulate the media, who are supposed to act as watchdogs who make government misconduct public.

The second part of the legislation is also problematic:

An individual who is interviewed may make the request for a copy of such audio or video recording or photographs directly to the member of the media conducting the interview, to the employer of the member of the media conducting the interview, to the person making the audio or video recording of the interview or taking photographs in connection with the interview, or to the media outlet that runs a story relying on such interview or the audio or video recording of such interview or photographs taken in connection with such interview. Such request shall be made within 60 days of the date that the interview was conducted.

Media outlets would have three days to provide such materials at "no cost to the individual making the request for such copies." Violating this second part of the legislation would make outlets liable to civil suits.

It's difficult to see this bill as anything more than a way for politicians to try and wiggle their way out of bad press coverage. There's a much easier solution for lawmakers who want access to recordings of interviews: Record those interviews themselves. Alternatively, they could just not say things that will make them look bad.

Forcing reporters to hand over their own materials related to such interviews—essentially their own private property—sets a terrible First Amendment precedent. "First I thought this was an April Fools' joke, but this is clearly an effort to rein in those who have been scrutinizing what's been happening at the Legislature," Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told the AJC. "In this country there is a First Amendment which reads, in part: Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. This applies even to the Georgia Legislature."

Jonathan Peters, a press freedom correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review and a media law professor at the University of Georgia, had a more concise response:

Then there's the issue of photographers, many of whom license their photos, being forced to hand over their own work.

The legislation is also hypocritical. Georgia's Open Records Act allows members of the public, including journalists, to access public records. But documents relating to the General Assembly itself, including legislative records, are largely exempt. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, has challenged this exemption, at least in regard to agencies under the General Assembly, in court. The Georgia Court of Appeals heard arguments regarding the matter in December, the AJC reported.

It's also worth noting that records which are not exempt under the Open Records Act cost money to access. "An agency may impose a reasonable charge for the search, retrieval, redaction, and production or copying costs for the production of records," the act reads. If journalists have to pay for government records, why should government officials be able to access journalists' records for free?

The bill cannot be voted on until the 2020 legislative session starts. Hopefully, the outcry from First Amendment advocates will be anough to doom its chances.

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  1. This seems a lot like schools finally being interested in First Amendment issues when cops are disturbed.

    1. Still the most idiotic talking point this week. Schools treat disruptive protestors differently. Newsflash.

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  2. It would also force members of the media to comply with requests from interview subjects to provide, at no charge, the full, unedited versions of any relevant audio or video clips, as well as photographs.

    Oh come on. This is the age of digital media, are you really going to cry over $.20?

    1. My biggest question here is how we define members of the media. That seems underspecified.

      1. Well you know the rule for writing policies: be as vague as possible so the auditors have less to nail you with.

    2. No one is crying. Paying even 1 cent is a burden that the government cannot impose.

      1. You clearly have me pegged as a filthy First Amendment hater.

        1. No, I have you pegged as someone who, at least in this case, is not using proper reasoning.

          1. Oh, right, because journalists equals First Amendment forever and always in all matters. Right, forgot about that.

  3. You could have saved yourself a lot of time and words by just stating, “Georgia has proven for the Nth time that they have the most ignorant ring-wing pols in the Nation.”

    1. Billy, how’s the pirate business?

  4. the media, who are supposed to act as watchdogs who make government misconduct public.

    Yeah

  5. Forcing reporters to hand over their own materials related to such interviews?essentially their own private property?sets a terrible First Amendment precedent.

    I must be missing something here. How is this a First Amendment issue?

    1. Explain how in a free press the government can create obligations on people acting as journalists, other than those that are generally applicable to the rest of society. There is a mountain of court precedent against you, so you better have some really good reasoning.

      1. 1. That isn’t what he said.

        2. How is what you said a 1st amendment issue instead of, say, a 5th?

        1. Actually it is. It fits exactly.
          “Forcing reporters to hand over their own materials related to such interviews?essentially their own private property?sets a terrible First Amendment precedent.”
          Forcing REPORTERS is a First Amendment issue, exactly for the reason I described.

          1. It’s a fifth amendment. Right to be secure in their own property. Reporters are not a privileged class dummy.

      2. There is a mountain of court precedent against you, so you better have some really good reasoning.

        You … should take a second and read what I actually typed.

        1. You……should read what I typed. ANY obligation specifically targeted at journalists is a violation of the First Amendment.

          1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

            Odd that the word ‘journalists’ isn’t in there. I guess I’ll just have to take your word that the court said so.

          2. No, it’s not, Valkanis. This myth that “journalists” get some kind of special protection under the First Amendment is flatly untrue. They get the same protections that you or I get – no more and no less.

          3. You do know that, legally speaking, there is no such thing as a ‘journalist’, right?

            ‘journalists’ are just regular people with no more – and no fewer – legal protections than anyone else. They are not a separate class.

      3. The first amendment doesnt carve out protections for journalists. The use of “the press” refers to the printing press, not corporate media members.

        1. “The press” does not refer only to physical printing presses. I mean, the article “the” in front of it is a tip off that it’s not referring to a single printing press that existed in 1789, but instead the entire news reporting industry.

          1. No it isnt. The press as a journalistic outfit was not common at the time at ratification. The term the press was nominally regarded as the printing press, ie a means to amplify written language. It covers the technology the common man can use for amplification. Franklin was a major publisher of political news at the time and was very dear to the technology. Professor volokh has a good paper about this, cant remember if it was before his move. The concept of a protected media outfit was not what the founders envisioned as common citizens were the ones utilizing the press to distribute the anti British material.

          2. “The press” does in fact refer to a physical printing press, its purpose is to protect the printed word in the same way freedom of speech protects the spoken word.

            It’s meaning is taken more broadly now, to refer to all forms of publication, but it does not, and has never, been intended to refer solely to, or confer special rights on, the “news reporting industry” or any other profession

  6. . . . force members of the media to comply with requests from interview subjects to provide, at no charge, the full, unedited versions of any relevant audio or video clips, as well as photographs.

    *sigh*. Its 2019. A cheap camera on a tripod and an intern to set it up is all you need if you want an ‘unedited’ version of your own.

    Leave it to government to sit on their arses for decades and then come up with a ‘solution’ to something that is not a problem anymore. If you aren’t making your own recording of the interview its because you *chose* not to – not because its impractical or too expensive.

    1. “”A cheap camera on a tripod and an intern to set it up is all you need if you want an ‘unedited’ version of your own.”‘

      Or hold up your phone and use that.

      1. Yeah, I mean, if this was 1980 and a crappy videocamera cost $2,000 1980 dollars – then this might have some merit. Though how much good it would do you to get the unedited copy in a format that it would take $10,000 in equipment to playback is up for debate.

        But recording today is so cheap that the only reason its not ubiquitous is because people have chosen not to put out the effort.

      2. Or hold up your phone and use that.

        Breaking News: Vain Candidate Takes Selfies Throughout Interview

  7. The legislation makes a point of emphasizing that the government would not be involved in the ethics board itself. It does not detail why the board is necessary, and its open-ended nature makes you question why the government needs to mandate its creation in the first place. Of course, there’s always reason for concern when the government proposes any sort of new regulatory body, particularly one that would regulate the media, who are supposed to act as watchdogs who make government misconduct public.

    1. These people think that a government created board, with the privilege of using state violence to enforce its edicts, is somehow ‘the government is not involved’?

    2. Media are not government watchdogs. They’ve never been government watchdogs – that’s never been their purpose. They’ve always been entertainment. Its entertainment that gets eyeballs which gets advertisers. If they do any watchdogging on the side, that’s simply an extra benefit – and its *still* done solely for the sake of eyeball numbers to drive ad revenue.

  8. It’s a god-awfully bad bill. That said, it doesn’t sound any worse than the hundreds of other professional licensing board proposals. Maybe this will finally wake some journalists up to the evils of professional licensing generally now that it’s their own ox being gored.

    1. That’s what I’m thinking too. The government puts you through the grinder if you want to stamp engineering documents, prescribe people pills, start a university, or work with kids.

      The fact that the government has yet to try to hold journalists accountable for their work says all I need to know about the importance of that line of work.

  9. There’ve a lot of reports in Reason recently of bills introduced in the GA legislature – registering ejaculations, abolishing the death penalty, regulating journalists – but how likely are these bills to actually pass?

    1. Depends if the car dealers, agribusinesses, home builders, land developers, kaolin miners, insurance industry and funeral homes want the legislation to pass.

  10. “There’ve a lot of reports in Reason recently of bills introduced in the GA legislature – registering ejaculations, abolishing the death penalty, regulating journalists – but how likely are these bills to actually pass?”

    It’s premature to say…

  11. You should pay if you want copies of government records. Isn’t fee-based services one of the tenets of libertarianism?

    The other stuff in the bill? Utter crap.

    1. Already paid for it though.

  12. So this is truly one of those examples where both (all) sides are fucking wrong.

    The First Amendment says absolutely nothing about “journalists”. “Journalists” are no better or worse than any other citizen. The First Amendment is about freedom of the PRINTING PRESS, not some make believe industry that decided to call itself “The Press”.

    CNN has every right to publish its biased news. So does Fox News. So does everyone else. So does little Tommy SmithJones in Jerkwater, IA.

    So I would tend to agree with others who say that this isn’t really a First Amendment issue, but it is a bad idea, and much more about Fourth and Fifth Amendments (the recordings are the interviewers property and possibly “takings”).

    1. At the very end and in your parenthetical, you make the most interesting argument in the comments so far. Definitely an argument that deserves more discussion.

      Specifically, you said that “the recordings are the interviewer’s property”. I’m not sure that is as simple or obvious as your statement assumes. On the one hand, you are entitled to the fruits of your labor. On the other hand, an interview is the labor of two people – the interviewer and the interviewee. Why is one party automatically granted ownership of the joint output and the other automatically refused?

      Note that I am assuming here that the interviewee has not been paid, compensated or received any thing of value in exchange for his/her participation. I don’t think the interviewee can be simply assumed to have waived all rights. And even if you wrote a contract and asked him/her to waive them, I’m not sure it would be an enforceable contract without some form of consideration.

      I’m not saying that this distinction justifies the bill above. It’s a horrible bill. But the idea of the interviewee having some rights to the joint workproduct that is the interview – well, it’s at least plausible.

  13. The legislation came after Welch claimed a TV reporter who asked him questions about separate legislation was biased

    Boo hoo.

  14. “Journalism ethics” will be right up there with “military intelligence” in the list of hilarious oxymorons.

  15. “Journalists would be expected to pay up for government records, while handing over their own records to government officials for free.”

    Well, yeah.
    You don’t really expect the government to give you any of their money, do you?

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  17. If they put me on the board it may work. I know ethics when I see them.

    1. There’s a story of a union boss whose union had an Ethical Practices Committee. The boss sent a message to the committee: “Have you found any ethical practices yet”?

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  20. Jounalists have ethics? When did that happen?

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