On June 17, the Cranston Public Library’s Central Library hosted a “First Amendment and the Free Press” event sponsored by the New England First Amendment Coalition.
Panelists for the event included Lynn Arditi of The Public’s Radio, Jared A. Goldstein of Roger Williams University School of Law, Amanda Milkovits of the Boston Globe and John Kostrzewa of Bryant University.
Kostrzewa, the former business editor of the Providence Journal and the moderator of the event, spoke of democracy and the importance of the nation’s constitutional rights.
“When I think about the core of democracy, the key principles that make us one of the freest people on Earth, I think about the five freedoms,” he said. “[Freedom of the press] is written in black and white in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Kostrzewa said freedom of the press is facing three threats. The first, he said, is “the lack of awareness, or simple understanding of what the First Amendment is.” He cited a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found 37 percent of Americans cannot name the guaranteed rights under the First Amendment. The survey also found that 48 percent of Americans recognize freedom of speech as a First Amendment right, and 14 percent realize that freedom of the press is included in the amendment.
“That lack of awareness is a huge issue,” he said. “You can’t support, protect, or defend what you don’t know or what you don’t understand.”
The second threat, Kostrzewa said, comes via legal attacks on freedom of the press. He said President Donald Trump has “argued it should be easier for people to sue the press,” and noted that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in February “called for the Supreme Court to reconsider a landmark ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan, that made it harder for public officials to prevail in libel suits.”
Kostrzewa said that at the local level, officials have denied access to police records and other documents.
“Powerful people threaten lawsuits to chill reporters’ questions and their stories,” he said. “Those threats come at a time when many newsrooms no longer have in-house lawyers to defend the First Amendment, and are less financially willing or able to pay or defend freedom of the press.”
The third and final threat, Kostrzewa said, relates to the credibility of the press and support by the public for the press. He said that this threat comes from leaders in government, both globally and domestically, who have used the term “fake news.”
“When confronted with uncomplimentary stories, they will call reporters ‘the lying press’ or ‘enemies of the people,’” he said.
Kostrzewa offered some potential solutions, including holding more forums to “increase awareness” and have “more participation, especially among young people.” He said that the legal threats can be solved by calling out public officials through a variety of mediums, such as social media, writing letters to the editor and calling in to talk shows. In terms of the credibility issue, he said, fake news and real news must be sorted out and support must be provided for those who “deliver independent, objective information that holds the powerful accountable.”
Goldstein, who teaches First Amendment law and constitutional law at RWU School of Law, spoke of his involvement – via the American Civil Liberties Union – in the recent dispute between the city of Providence and the Foxy Lady strip club. The city’s Board of Licenses revoked the club’s license after police charged three dancers with allegedly engaging in prostitution.
Goldstein said the ACLU got in contact with him to file a brief on behalf of the club. While he said he does not approve of the club’s form of entertainment, “people have a right to engage in it” under the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
“If the First Amendment only protected the speech that we all think is nice and is pleasant, then we wouldn’t need the First Amendment,” he said.
Arditi spoke about both the news business and the First Amendment.
“When I think about the First Amendment and the news business, the first thing that comes to mind is that local newspapers in this state are laying off reporters,” she said. “Our coverage area is shrinking … There are a lot fewer of us, and we’re under a lot more pressure. So who do we rely on, really, to protect our First Amendment rights? I would say it’s everybody at this table … it’s also all of you guys.”
Arditi added that most people care about the First Amendment, even if they do not realize it. She used the example of running a Google search for “Rhode Island public records,” clicking the “news” option, and receiving nearly 71,000 results. She said that while not all outlets are “fighting to get public records,” much of the news in the state “probably wouldn’t see the light of day without records that are accessible to the public.”
Public records, she added, are “not just for reporters, they’re for you.”
Milkovits said as a reporter, “you see a lot and you encounter a lot.” She said reporters are on the “frontlines of everything that is happening,” and she mentioned a recent shooting at a Texas courthouse in which a local newspaper photographer captured images of the gunman before he opened fire.
“That’s the thing that happens as journalists,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen, depending on what’s happening around us.”
Milkovits – who previously worked at the Providence Journal – said that she writes about crime and gets “pushback all the time.”
“That includes law enforcement, who will say, ‘Why did you find this out? Why did you talk to this person? We didn’t want you to find that affidavit,’” she said. “But I do that because I need to inform people. I want you to understand what is happening in your community, why crime is being solved and why it’s not being solved. Who’s behind it when things go well, and what happens when it doesn’t go well?”
After their remarks, the panelists fielded questions from the audience. One asked: “In light of our current president’s disdain for the press, how have you personally, particularly those who have been in it so long, felt the difference?”
“Fake news seems to be the phrase that’s thrown out whenever something is presented that, quite frankly, they just don’t like or it’s embarrassing in some way,” Milkovits said. “What I wonder is, when it’s thrown out, whether people are believing it. I do hear from some readers who do say that … If you point to something specifically that you don’t like, that’s one thing. If a reporter has made a mistake and not corrected it, that’s a serious thing. We have to correct what we do wrong, we have to back up everything.”
Milkovits said she thinks there is more “hostility” toward reporters in today’s environment, and that in the past, if she got pushback from politicians or police officers, “the general public would be more supportive of me.” She said now, people often ask why she needs to know something or why she doesn’t “just leave it alone.”
“I don’t know how we change that,” she said.
Kostrzewa said in his classes at Bryant University, discussions are held on news literacy and identifying where information is taken from. He said some students have a difficult time determining what news is real and what is not.
“We try to teach now that every time you pick up some information, you should put it through a test. You really have to check that website, if it’s good or bad,” he said. “Is it current? Is it relevant? Is there authority, does the person know what they’re doing? … What’s the purpose, what’s the motivation?”
Kostrzewa said if people cannot separate real news from fake news, there will be “a lot of trouble.”