The Corner

Politics & Policy

Against the De Facto Licensing of Journalists

Senator Blumenthal has a proposal:

This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, the most serious of which is that in order for the federal government to apply special rules to journalists and “fact gatherers,” the federal government would have to decide who is, and who is not, a journalist or fact gatherer — a development that we should avoid at all costs. It is sometimes said by journalists that “journalism is the only profession protected by the Constitution.” But this is not true. On the contrary: The Constitution protects “the freedom of speech, or of the press” for everyone, irrespective of whether they are paid to exercise that right, irrespective of whether they have credentials, irrespective of which category they fill in on their tax forms, irrespective of whether they went to journalism school, and so on. Journalists are indeed protected by the First Amendment. But so are truck drivers, doctors, and the unemployed. And, by design, the right attaches to all of them in exactly the same way.

And so it should, not least because, in so doing, it prevents the government from establishing a set of criteria — or, worse, a de facto licensing system — that can be altered at will. Even if it were possible for Americans to decide objectively who counts as a “fact gatherer” or a “news operator” and who does not — and it is emphatically not possible, as we have seen over the last few years — it would still be an appalling idea to bestow upon the national government the power to confer protected status upon certain players within the political debates upon which its representatives rely. Such a measure would not only accord the government — or the courts, or the bureaucracy — a power that it should not enjoy, it would help to create yet another two-tier system of justice in America. It is wrong to attack or threaten people because they are people, not because they are doing something of which the political class especially approves. Insofar as we have laws to punish those who transgress our moral bounds, those laws should be universal and ineligible for abuse. Senator Blumenthal’s proposal is neither.

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