NORMAN, Okla. — Public ignorance represents a major threat to freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment, a speaker at Freedom of Information Oklahoma’s Seventh Annual First Amendment Congress said last week.
Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, said it’s difficult to defend these constitutional rights when most people don’t know what they are.
“Three of 100 Americans can name all five freedoms,” Policinski said.
The amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
A second threat to First Amendment freedoms is fear, as when people are afraid to get up and speak in a city council meeting, said Policinski, who was a journalist for 27 years.
A third danger is apathy. “We take for granted freedoms people elsewhere in the world would die for,” he said. “We are not moved to go and raise our voice in the public square.”
The fourth danger is the “difficulty of living up to the First Amendment,” Policinski said.
Some people have trouble accepting the concept that “all ideas are welcome. ... Even one person’s voice deserves to be heard.”
The fifth threat is the temptation to seek simple solutions to complex problems, Policinski said. The purpose of the First Amendment is to “defend the fringes of our society,” to listen to “the voice we would rather not hear.” America has changed from “the land of the free to the land of the easily offended,” he said.
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who also spoke at the conference on Nov. 10, said Oklahoma’s law affords some protection to reporters who do not want to reveal the identity of their sources, but there is no such protection on a federal level.
“When the statute is just on the state level, a reporter in collecting information or more importantly the source about to give information knows that while they might be protected under state law, they could still be called before a federal grand jury and asked the very same question,” he said.
Edmondson was one of 34 state attorneys general who asked the Supreme Court last summer to hear two related cases involving protection of reporters’ confidential sources.
They argued that “the free flow of information superseded an investigator’s curiosity about where that reporter got his or her information.”
The Supreme Court refused to hear the cases, Miller v. United States and Cooper v. United States. A shield law protects journalists from being forced by any court or administrative proceeding to disclose the identity of confidential sources or information received from those sources unless the information cannot be obtained elsewhere.
Edmondson said most states and the District of Columbia have some sort of shield law. The high court’s refusal to hear the cases undermined those laws, he said.
A ruling is needed so all Americans know whether “reporters can go out and do their job and sources can present information to reporters without a federal official knocking on their doors,” he said.
To overcome a reporter’s privilege in Oklahoma, a party seeking the information must prove to the court that the information is relevant, that the issue is significant and that it cannot be obtained by due diligence in any other manner, Edmondson said.