Speaker at Wolf Law Building addresses freedom of press
Duke University Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky spoke about the current threats to freedom of the press at the Wolf Law Building on Tuesday evening.
As part of the 50th Annual John R. Coen Lecture, Chemerinsky spoke about how the media’s voice is silenced and the effect this will have on the public.
“The death of freedom and the erosion of liberty that hasn’t gotten any recognition is the freedom of the press,” Chemerinsky said. “All of us depend for our information on the press and its aggressive reporting. It is essential to have the press protected.”
In today’s society, the freedom of the press is threatened in three ways, according to Chemerinsky. The first way is unprecedented secrecy. The government keeps hidden certain information. An example is the government’s refusal to disclose the number of people being detained by the U.S. as a result of the war on terror.
Also, the federal courts are keeping secret dockets, which are certified memorandum in a legal case. Courts across the country are enforcing a complete closure of proceedings to the public and the press.
“There is a need for the press and public to be apart of these type of things to act as a checking function,” Chemerinsky said.
The second way freedom of the press is jeopardized is in threats received by reporters who wish to keep sources confidential. Many reporters are faced with a decision to reveal their source or receive jail time. The Supreme Court argues that reporters do not have first amendment rights to keep sources confidential. The states have adopted shield laws protecting reporters and their sources. However, there is no federal shield law, which allows reporters to be open to prosecution. Revealing confidential sources will result in having no confidential sources at all.
“Reporters rely on confidential sources. The Watergate scandal would have never been revealed without a confidential source,” Chemerinsky said. “If reporters can’t get confidential sources, then reporters will choose not to take the information rather than go to jail.”
The outcome will be a large threat on public knowledge of the government and recent events.
The third threat to freedom of the press is the ability to prosecute for publishing classified information. Certain federal statutes are trying to prevent documents from being published. Each statute can be used against the press in issues concerning classified government documents or other secret information.
In the past, newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post uncovered scandals like espionage and CIA rendition camps by publishing classified documents.
“Other reporters might be hesitant on these types of stories that come their way,” Chemerinsky said.
Because of this, stories will not get exposed and vital information the public needs will not get revealed.
“The information public relies on will not be available. We will never know what we don’t know,” Chemerinsky said.
Audience member Davis Whitfield, a second year law student, agreed.
“If the press doesn’t know, then the people don’t know,” Whitfield said.
The issue of freedom of the press is relevant in today’s society to keep a stable balance between the government and its people.
“It is a very timely topic. Democracy can’t work without freedom of the press,” said Jane Thompson, a CU librarian.