Shoptalk: Standing Up for the First Amendment in the Digital Age

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Make no mistake. The First Amendment has been under attack for some time now.  The problem is the will to fight seems to be waning as news organizations too often don’t have the resources, or money, to fight the battles. Add to that a new generation of digital journalists and armies of people with cell phones capturing news every day that simply don’t understand the First Amendment (or simply don’t care).

The underlying problem is laws haven’t kept pace with innovation.

That’s not unusual. Many of the fundamental tenants of U.S. law is based on doctrine from more than 100 years ago—well before any of the tech we have today was around.  Could the framers have ever envisioned something like a website or Periscope?

There are so many questions, and so few clear-cut answers in the law. Many First Amendment issues haven’t been seriously examined in decades. Yet, they need to be examined and, yes, litigated if need be to protect this fundamental right. Police couldn’t come in to a TV station and take them off the air any more than they could put armed guards to shut down the printing press. But they seem comfortable taking cell phones and cameras and confiscating them when they capture unflattering images. Can they?

From defining what’s public versus private on social media and whether you have a right to be forgotten, to police body cameras and what is public record, there’s no shortage of First Amendment and privacy issues to sort out.

Another symptom is the seeming indifference from government officials in dealing with the media. More often than not, FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests are being met by government officials with outright hostility. “So sue us,” one official told one of our reporters when he said he wasn’t going to respond to our request. Requests take more time than ever. Information is delayed, like a Dayton Daily News request for public records from the US Marshall’s Service that took 14 months to respond, only to tell them the request should have gone to the FBI. Or there’s a significant bill attached to acquire seemingly simple information, like the Plymouth, Mich. student journalist who asked for a list of the websites banned in public schools and was presented a bill for $8,000.

The feeling on a lot of these issues seems to be, ignore them and they’ll go away.

And they may be right. A poll earlier this year by the Knight Foundation, AP Media Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the American Society of News Editors addressed this issue with a significant number of news leaders. It called the results sobering.  Sixty-five percent of the editors rated the news industry as “less able” to pursue legal activity on First Amendment issues than it was a decade ago.

The study asked if they agreed with this statement: “News organizations are no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms.” Fifty-three percent agreed.

Ninety percent said it was an economic issue. When there’s money involved, the will isn’t there. Forty-four percent said their own news organizations were less likely to sue than in the past—at a time when it may be more important than ever and journalists are needed to help shape the way the First Amendment is applied to emerging technology.

The Knight Foundation stepped up with its largest journalism grant in history to create the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. A series of grants will spark a $60 million dollar effort to preserve and expand First Amendment rights in the digital age through research and education, and by supporting litigation in favor of protecting freedom of expression and the press.

The main activities of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University will be in the areas of litigation, research and education. The institute will watch for court cases that offer an opportunity to define First Amendment law in the digital age, with a goal of achieving significant victories, and priority given to cases with digital components. Through its research, fellowships, publications, lectures and other events, the institute will seek to help the legal community, including the nation’s network of legal clinics, understand the principles underlying the First Amendment and how they apply to new technology.


Paul Dughi is the vice president and general manager of WAAY-TV (ABC 31) in Huntsville, Ala. A 30-year veteran of the TV industry, he’s worked as reporter, anchor, news director, general manager, and group president. He’s started two digital agencies, including, and was named one of Broadcasting & Cable’s 2016 Digital All-Stars. This article originally appeared at


One thought on “Shoptalk: Standing Up for the First Amendment in the Digital Age

  • August 23, 2016 at 7:19 am

    This is a vitally important message and one that needs to be expressed to the public at large. News is not free for a reason. Quality news costs money to collect, confirm and publish or broadcast. One of those costs is the cost of holding public officials accountable. Small local papers are becoming the main source of local news. News not covered by any other media but get into a situation where local officials believe they can ignore their local news outlets and most of those papers do not have the economic resources to force compliance with sunshine laws. I would like to publish this in my 4 local weeklies is that possible?


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