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My Walk in Wonderland–Make Law a Tool

May 12, 2011

 Here’s a thought: What if Alice had had a lawyer.

The trip down the rabbit hole would have been, well, a whole other trip.

Note that I’m not a lawyer (nor—no offense—would I want to be, not even on television), but I have to know enough law, both the actual code and its frequent misapplication, to make sure my journalism students know how to use the law  and how not to be abused by it.

That’s not easy in places like some colleges and universities where the “first” in “first amendment” apparently means the order in which those in power should ignore the Bill of Rights.  To date, we’ve had members of the newspaper staff

  • ·         Kicked out of a public building for taking photographs
  • ·         Harassed by police for reporting on a story
  • ·         Denied material clearly covered by open record
  • ·         Given records with key information blacked out when nothing in Georgia’s open records law justified the omission
  • ·         Denied access to a meeting
  • ·         Threatened with several lawsuits

 

And that’s just been this year.

So what to do, what to do.  One strategy:  Use technology to put the law at the staff’s fingertips.

As advisers, make sure that every editor has (at minimum) the following links on his or her computer:

 

Add, if possible, links to the annotated code for your state and to your state press association.

Then start a staff database of legal challenges for each year and how the staff responded. Put it in the form of FAQ. (For example, the Student Government Association wants to close meeting. What do I do if I’m covering the meeting?)  Have your staffers download the file to their smart phones if possible.

Next, create an informational campaign that provides administrators and students groups at least the links to your state’s code for open records and open meetings.  (Hey, you have a newspaper and probably a web site to do this with.)

As adviser, write a short guide to open records/open meetings, get it vetted by your press association or equivalent authority, and distribute it campus wide. Get all major players (key administrators, chief of police, etc.) to sign off on a form that acknowledges that they have received it.  Better yet, if possible, have a non-school related authority provide this.  In Georgia, we have the great good fortune to have the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. This gives teeth to the reporters’ assertions that sources have been informed of the law and thus strengthens the argument that non-compliance is willful.  (Doesn’t hurt to include the fact that the source has been provided with the law in the story.)

 

In short, be informed.  Be polite. Be persistent. Teach your journalists to do the same.

Pat Miller

Valdosta State University

 

 

 

 

 

 

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