The Ethics in Journalism Act currently in the Georgia House of Representatives is a thinly veiled attempt to censor journalists. A government-created committee with the power to unilaterally suspend or probate journalists is a dangerous concept and was exactly the sort of institution the framers sought to avoid when establishing freedom of the press.
The bill, HB 734, is sponsored by six Republicans and would create a Journalism Ethics Board with nine members appointed by Steve Wrigley, the chancellor of the University of Georgia. This board would be tasked to create a process by which journalists “may be investigated and sanctioned for violating such canons of ethics for journalists to include, but not be limited to, loss or suspension of accreditation, probation, public reprimand and private reprimand.”
The bill is an attempt to violate journalists’ first amendment rights and leave the chance of government punishing journalists for reporting the truth.
“It’s pretty obviously violating the first amendment,” recent mathematics graduate Jasmine Nielsen said. “They could use this as an excuse to target anyone who publishes something they don’t like.”
The language of the first amendment is clear: “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.”
To clarify, this amendment applies to state governments following Gitlow v. New York in 1925, in which the Supreme Court ruled that, “although the Bill of Rights was designed to limit the power of the federal government, the incorporation principle allows it to be applied to states.”
The language in HB 734 also allows for the appointees of the Journalism Ethics Board to “accept and manage grants, donations, gifts, and other monetary awards for the fulfillment of its duties and responsibilities from private and public sources.”
An obvious conflict of interest is created by the board’s ability to “receive complaints regarding violations of the canons of ethics for journalists, conducting investigations of such complaints, conducting investigations of violations on its own motion, and conducting hearings on such complaints or investigations.”
Such a system allows for uncapped donations to the board members by wealthy individuals in exchange for retribution against the journalists reporting on their actions.
“That really concerns me,” junior political science major April Friedman said. “I understand that people are worried about the trend of fake news, but government controls on speech have never gone well.”
The most concerning aspect of this bill is its final directive, which empowers the Journalism Ethics Board to “take such other actions as are reasonable and necessary for the fulfillment of its duties and responsibilities.”
Vagueness like this is abhorred in legal language, as explained in the constitutional rule known as the Vagueness Doctrine. It declares that a statute is considered void for vagueness if it would give such broad authority to appointees that it could lead to arbitrary prosecutions. In the case of HB 734, it means that those who make the rules defining “ethical journalism” should not also be the ones enforcing them.
Cries of “fake news” by those in government often lead to retaliation against journalists, especially in the past few years. According to Reporters Without Borders, almost five hundred journalists were either detained, held hostage or killed in 2018, more than the previous year.
The Ethics in Journalism Act exists solely to retaliate against journalists for telling the truth about those in power. Its dangerously vague standards for acceptable journalism would allow for the unrestrained targeting of anyone reporting anything the committee members dislike. Its very existence defies numerous existing standards and laws, and it cannot be allowed to pass.