Two issues came to my attention this week. Though they might not seem to have a connection, they do. That connection concerns the First Amendment of the Constitution, public debate and truthfulness of the press. The press, in this case, includes the traditional and nontraditional sources that provide either/or political or conspiratorial news, some to the extreme. Both issues came to me through the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
The first, a threaded discussion, concerns a libel suit against the Anniston (Ala.) Star newspaper. That suit involves a city official claiming libel for an article written about him that, at least from my point, was most likely factually correct.
Anniston Star editor Bob Davis and I talked about the libel suit. The question concerns Anniston City Councilman Ben Little and a rumored affair with contractor Yolanda Jackson, whether the newspaper confirmed the allegations provided by another councilman and whether the paper committed the libelous act of “Tort-by-Outrage,” defined as when one party, “by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress.” The case was originally dismissed under a summary judgment: no evidence.
In returning the case to the lower court, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals cited U.S. Supreme Court’s New York Times v. Sullivan, that “‘clear and convincing’ evidence requirement applies,” and “the record could support [that] reasonable jury” could find for or against the plaintiff. The upper court found that, “the trial court erred” in its decision by its summary judgment.
What the Alabama upper court did not cite was another part of the Supreme Court decision. “(W)e consider (NYT v. Sullivan) against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
How open should public debate be, even if it goes “caustic?” We will have to wait and see.
The second issue is a Houston Chronicle article concerning a member of faculty at the Texas A&M system’s Tarleton State University who was told that if he teaches his students how to use the Texas Public Information Act, he could be fired.
Students are instructed on the use of public information laws and “submit Texas Public Information Act requests to various governmental agencies, including universities.”
There seems to be a small problem. The Texas A&M system rule states, “A faculty member can't direct students to submit a public information request to Tarleton or any other member of the A&M system.” Evidently, A&M is above the law.
I spoke with MU associate professor Charles Davis, who works under a grant from the John L. Knight Foundation for the National Freedom of Information Coalition. He told me that the libel suit was a “bizarre outlier,” and there is not a rule even remotely like this anywhere.
What do these two law suits have in common? Why should you care?
Both revive my earliest memories of a government official attacking the Fourth Estate. Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s first vice president, upset by how the press treated both the president and the United States’ continuation of the war in Vietnam. For the younger crowd, Agnew described the press as “[a] tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government,” and said, “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” My bird loves the other Columbia paper.
There is a growing distrust in our news services by the public, government and citizens. Distrust that someone might be telling the “truth” through honest and exacting research. The “truth,” it seems, is something too many citizens do not want to hear.
The Constitution (Agnew’s bane) gave the press an important role in the governing of the United States: To keep public officials honest and the citizens informed. Yet distrust of the press, its real or perceived liberal or conservative biases, has caused only further distrust on our government. And we, the press, have done little to fix the problem.
David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at InkandVoice.com and New York Journal of Books.