A group of Republicans in the Georgia state assembly unveiled a bill earlier this week that could open the door to imposing regulations on members of the free press that include fining reporters who refuse to turn over recordings to subjects of interviews.
The bill, sponsored by Georgia state GOP Rep. Andrew Welch and other Republican lawmakers, looks to establish a “Journalism Ethics Board” that could create “canons of ethics” and new regulations for journalists in the state, according to the legislation. The bill states journalists and news organizations “may be investigated and sanctioned for violating such canons of ethics” by the board, should it become law.
The “Ethics in Journalism Act,” if passed, could force media members to turn over audio recordings, video recordings and photographs upon request by the interview subject. The journalist would have to provide the materials for free.
If a journalist refuses to comply or takes longer than three business days to reply to a request, the bill could impose a $100 per day civil penalty, and the “court shall award reasonable litigation expenses and attorney fees to the individual bringing an action.”
Welch, the sponsor of the legislation who also resigned from the state’s General Assembly on Tuesday, wrote in an email to CNN that he is a “firm believer in the First Amendment’s Protection of Freedom of the Press.” The bill will continue to be considered by the legislature despite his resignation from the assembly.
“Because the press plays such an important and vital role in the public discourse of our nation’s representative-democracy, I think the public should know that the press in Georgia follows a known standard for ethical journalism,” Welch wrote.
He noted that the board that would be created by the legislation isn’t required to adopt canons of ethics.
“In addition, the legislation specifically states that involvement with the Board of Ethics and adherence to any cannons of ethics adopted by this professional board is purely voluntary,” he wrote. “This is in keeping with the Code of Ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists.”
The bill states that news organizations could voluntarily seek accreditation from the board and would reach that status if all journalists at the organization are also accredited. However, Welch told CNN that news organizations and journalists that don’t seek accreditation could still be forced to turn over their recordings of interviews.
“The right of a person interviewed to request and obtain a copy of their interview would apply to all journalists in Georgia and has nothing to do with voluntary accreditation or Article I of the bill,” he said in the email.
The bill is unprecedented, one media lawyer says, in that it opens the door to journalists being punished for what the bill calls “violations” while doing their jobs and could see them being forced to turn over documents and recordings related to their reporting.
Derek Bauer, a media lawyer from Atlanta with BakerHostetler, said in an email to CNN that the bill is “unconstitutional on its face.”
“The First Amendment prohibits any government assembly from imposing restrictions on the press, much less imbuing a regulatory authority with disciplinary or enforcement powers,” he said. “Simply put, the US Constitution forbids assertion of government control over the free and independent press such as this bill attempts to do.”
The ethics board, appointed initially by the chancellor of the university system of Georgia, would consist of nine members: three editors, three news producers, one retired journalism professor, and two members who write or broadcast exclusively on websites. The bill notes no members can be employed by any government entity while they are serving on the board.
The board could conduct investigations of “complaints” and “violations” and would have the power to conduct “hearings on such complaints or investigations.”
The bill would protect the board members and make them “immune from civil liability,” and also protect those who communicate to the board about alleged “journalistic misconduct” by making their communications “absolutely privileged.”
The board “shall be located at and receive administrative support from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication of the University of Georgia.”
Bauer called the bill “entirely unnecessary,” saying there “already exist canons of ethics for journalists,” pointing to the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association, which are independent from the US government.
“Any person who feels they are the subject of a defamatory news story can rely on those ethical guidelines when pursuing a claim,” Bauer said, adding, “the point of the press protections in the First Amendment was to keep the government out of that space, and to make sure elected officials could not use their lawmaking responsibility to censor the media in this way.”
CNN is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia’s capital city.