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Guest column

When press is under assault, so is Constitution

New York state assemblyman

An alarming trend is taking place that is undermining one of the preeminent tenets of our U.S. Constitution — freedom of the press.

Faced with the prospect of bad publicity, people in positions of authority, in some cases with a particularly conservative political ideology, are using the legal system as a weapon in a war with an institution once seen as a bedrock of democracy and now perceived as an enemy.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the New York State Assembly, it is my duty to ensure that justice is being properly served.

As a legislator with journalist experience, I have great respect for the critical role journalism plays in our society.

As someone who was raised in small towns in the Midwest, I have a deep appreciation for how easily powerful forces can take advantage of those with fewer resources at their disposal.

One can’t help but see the link between the raid of this newspaper’s offices and its investigation of Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody.

The confiscation of computers, cell phones and a range of other material at its offices was a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.

I could not agree more with the sentiments of editor and publisher Eric Meyer when he said the message from police and the local political establishment was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”

I join in the nationwide outrage to this incident and applaud the court ruling demanding that authorities hand over electronic records and destroy any copies they have of them along with all photographs that officers took.

I also commend the reporter who has filed a lawsuit claiming Cody violated her constitutional rights when he abruptly snatched her personal cell phone out of her hands during the raid.

But Marion is by no means alone in terms of instances of press intimidation.

In Wisconsin, a small-town newspaper is on the verge of bankruptcy because of the expense of legal bills needed to pay to defend against a defamation suit filed by a Republican who is now a state senator.

In 2021, the Wausau Pilot and Review published an article reporting that a prominent businessman, Cory Tomczyk, referred to a 13-year old boy as a “fag” at a public hearing.

Tomczyk subsequently sued the paper for defamation, but the case was dismissed because he failed to meet the legal standard to establish a case.

Tomczyk has appealed, resulting in more legal fees. Now, the paper’s publisher has no idea how she can pay to fight both the legal case and pay her small staff of four.

While there are literally dozens of recent instances which have been documented, the actions of the man who is arguably the ringleader in this war against responsible journalism, Donald J. Trump, stands above the rest.

Trump, who has accused the press of being an “enemy of the people,” has filed numerous unsuccessful defamation lawsuits against news organizations, the latest of which, a $475 million whopper against CNN, was thrown out by a federal judge for lack of merit.

It may not always be as direct, but undoubtedly Trump’s way of thinking is influencing others in positions of authority to intimidate media entities in order to further their own gain.

A brave woman named Marie Colvin was an award-winning hero journalist from my district who lost her life covering war atrocities in Syria.

Marie used to say, “Be passionate and be involved in what you believe in, and do it as thoughtfully and honestly as you can. . . . Our mission is to speak truth to power.”

We need to stand up and fight for independent journalism. Let us all speak truth to power!

Charles Lavine represents New York’s 13th Assembly District in Nassau County.

Last modified Sept. 13, 2023

 

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