The Minnesota Senate gave the First Amendment a break Monday. Its members unanimously passed the Free Flow of Information Act, a bill which shields the media from police interference. Under the proposed law, which still faces a vote in the House of Representatives, prosecutors would lose the authority to seize reporters’ unpublished notes and photographs for criminal prosecutions. This is a power prosecutors have used before at the University when they went after The Minnesota Daily.
That case began in 1993, when a Progressive Student Organization anti-fascism protest sparked a fight. Kieran Knutson, a 22-year-old south Minneapolis man unaffiliated with the University was charged with assaulting a student. Knutson admitted hitting the student, but claimed self defense. He was eventually acquitted. What complicated matters was the presence of a Daily photographer, whose unpublished negatives might have shed light on whether the student had brass knuckles, as Knutson and some eyewitnesses claimed. Prosecutors then issued a subpoena for the Daily’s negatives. The paper fought the subpoena for months, but eventually lost on appeal.
The weakness of the current law is that it permits law enforcement agencies to force reporters to act as detectives and informants. Reporters have very few tools other than the trust of their sources. If unpublished notes and photographs can be seized by police, that trust can’t exist. Furthermore, the citizens of a democracy rely on reporters to gather the news they need to govern themselves. If journalists can’t report the news free from government interference, democracy is not possible. The Information Act, by protecting reporters, strengthens the public’s right to self-governance.
The public’s interest are even further protected by the Information Act. The specific language of the bill applies to any person “engaged in the gathering, procuring, compiling, editing or publishing of information for the purpose of transmission, dissemination or publication.” The wording is clearly meant to leave no room for defining some journalists out of the law’s shadow. But it can also be read to include many people not traditionally associated with reporting the news. Anybody who gathers information and posts it on the World Wide Web, for example, can claim the bill’s protection. This point might work against the act when the House of Representatives considers it — members of that body might find the law too broad in its application and too limiting to police.
But the breadth of the law is a virtue. As Thomas Jefferson recognized when he said he’d prefer a nation with newspapers and no government to the reverse, journalists help make self-government possible. Reporters need to enjoy the broadest possible protection from state interference. There’s no reason, however, to reserve the freedom of the press to a professional elite. Students who use their personal Web pages to inform their peers should enjoy the same protection as student journalists at the Daily. Freedom of speech and of the press should always be expanded, not restricted. That is the promise of the First Amendment, and the House should join the Senate in helping realize that promise.