Let’s promote the First Amendment

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By Steve Key
Hoosier State Press Association

We have work to do when it comes to the public’s understanding of the First Amendment.

I recently served as a judge for the “We, the People” competition held in Indianapolis.

I was part of a panel quizzing high school students on the potential clash between the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a fair trial.

I’m not talking about the average high school student.

Through their involvement with the “We, the People” program, these students have a heightened awareness of the U.S. Constitution and are more likely to be engaged at the civic level than their peers as they grow older.

What concerns me is that most of the high school panelists were too willing to throw the media out of the courtroom when asked how they would balance the public’s right to observe court proceedings with a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Only one of the students out of 12 panels argued strongly for the need to allow the press to cover trials to inform the public on how justice was dispensed.

Conversely, one student went as far as to suggest that the court should be able in certain cases to delay the press from reporting trial proceedings until the case was completed.

She apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept of “prior restraint.”

Most of the students were OK with the press being barred from the courtroom to prevent the jury from being influenced by media stories or protect the privacy of the criminal defendant.

A few understood that a case could be moved (change of venue) to protect against pre-trial publicity, but there was little understanding that the questioning of jurors (voir dire) was designed to weed out potential jurors who may have already formed an opinion due to news coverage of a case or that a jury could be sequestered to prevent it from seeing media coverage while the case was before the judge.

The views of these civic-minded students only bolster results of the 2012 State of the First Amendment survey released in July by the First Amendment Center, which is associated with the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

That survey of 1,000 adults found that only 13 percent could name freedom of the press as one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Also, 62 percent disagreed with the statement: “The news media try to report the news without bias.”

We need to boost the public’s understanding of the First Amendment or risk its erosion.

That’s why during this coming year HSPA Foundation Director Karen T. Braeckel will work with Tony Fargo, director of the IU School of Journalism Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies, to develop lesson plans and materials on the First Amendment for Indiana schools.

The two will begin discussions on the project early in the year and hope to have graduate students on board to assist with the effort by the fall semester.

But Indiana journalists need to help with the educational process.

We need to differentiate between newspapers, which clearly draw the line between reporting and commentary/opinion, and so-called 24-hour news channels that routinely cross over from reporting to opinion with no regard to its impact on their credibility or public perception of the news media.

Our credibility is our value, and we need to promote it.

Educating your community on the importance of the First Amendment and the watchdog role you play should be part of your marketing strategy.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.