Ga. governor wrong to ban TV station from bill signing

Monday, May 16, 2011

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has a complaint about a news report by an Atlanta TV station, but his objections likely would be better served by an open debate than a closed door.

A reporter and photographer from WAGA-TV, a Fox network station, were refused entry May 13 into Deal’s office for the signing of a controversial immigration bill. A day earlier, the station had reported on an investigation involving Deal’s election campaign and a fundraising company linked to the governor’s daughter-in-law.

In video reports posted on the Web, Georgia State Patrol troopers can be seen telling WAGA reporter Justin Gray that they are “following the governor’s press office’s instructions to prevent you from coming in at this time.” A gubernatorial staffer appeared briefly moments later, telling Gray he would be admitted “as soon as FOX 5 apologizes for the lies you all told about us.”

About 210 years ago, Congress tried something like Deal’s closed-door tactic. In the long run, it wasn’t effective then, either.

In 1798, Congress approved the Sedition Act, declaring as a treasonable act the publication of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing.” More than 20 newspaper editors and owners were fined and arrested. Public opposition grew to such a degree that the act was allowed to expire a few years later. The newly elected President Jefferson issued pardons for all arrested and Congress refunded all the fines with interest.

The First Amendment’s protections for a free press extend to anyone critical of government, including the news media, to preclude just the kind of official reprisal that occurred on May 13. There’s no requirement in the amendment’s 45 words that news reports be favorable or even acceptable to public officials.

More effective than a closed door would be information from the governor’s office – if it has it – that backs up the governor’s personal objections to WAGA’s investigative reporting.

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