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A “Free Press” within a democracy


Fri, Feb 25th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

I believe I was in 5th grade when my dad was elected to the school board. The local headline, in our town of 2,300, read “Flaig wins by a landslide.” I recall that it was spring, and the two of us went to mass (on a week day!) to express our thanks for his victory. I’ll bet there were many times he wondered why he’d been so thankful, after the reality of his new position sunk in. The years he served were hard on him. It was the 1970’s. A switch from trimesters to quarters, the addition of a substantial vocational program—those are a couple of the big issues I remember him struggling with. The board was almost always split on decisions, and I’m guessing he really disliked having people disagree with him, and argue with him. Maybe even dislike him.When I’m remembering him, I often have to guess at the details because I don’t remember, or I didn’t know him long enough. I think he was an idealist—someone who valued harmonious relationships, generally believed the best about people, and thought that as long as you were right and had the best intentions, things would go well. So I would guess he lost a lot of sleep when an ugly disagreement erupted between two key administrators, and was played out with high drama at board meetings, interfering with the business at hand. I’m sure he was worried more than anything, and when another board member suggested that my dad and several others meet “for coffee” to brainstorm ideas about how to handle the explosive situation, he agreed.And then, when a person he considered a friend reported seeing the group together (the fact that they met on main street demonstrates their lack of nefarious intentions), and accused them of violating the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, it had to be a shock to him. If ever there was a good reason to have a “closed meeting”, this seemed to be it.Our local newspaper reporter (yes, we had only one) started calling our house to question him, as did reporters from news organizations as far away as the Twin Cities. It was a big story. I was in the room at least once as he repeated “No comment,” into the phone—still using his polite voice, never sounding angry. In the end, he and the others hired an attorney, made an appearance before some legal body, and might have paid a fine (none of us remember for sure.)At the time, I was angry at anyone who messed with him—the reporters, neighbors, people at church, kids or teachers at school. From the little I understood about the situation, I couldn’t blame him and the other members for deciding to meet on their own. Plus, your dad is your dad, you know? He could have committed a crime much greater than violating the Minnesota Open Meeting Law and I still would’ve wanted to flatten anyone who caused him to doubt himself by accusing him of something.I went to college and studied journalism, dutifully memorized the First Amendment and at times even had flashes of understanding the absolute necessity of a free press within a democracy. What good is it to elect people if you can’t find out exactly what they’re doing while representing you? And we need an honest, intelligent, vigilant and free press, because what citizen can possibly go to all those meetings?But now, like a lot of people, I’m worried about those First Amendment rights. Sure, you still hear a lot of talk about freedom, to an odd variety of topics. Like the freedom to possess guns, pray in school. (Or let’s not forget the strangely construed “sanctity of marriage”, which some interpret as a “freedom” to live in a world with only heterosexual couples.) Chicken feed, all of them, compared to the freedom to have and express ideas. I recently read about something truly frightening. In a study conducted by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of 100,000 students, one in three high school students said the First Amendment goes “too far” in guaranteeing rights.More specifically, one question asked respondents to react to this statement: “Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.” Only 24 percent answered “strongly agree,” and 27 percent said “mildly agree.” A full 36 percent disagreed with the statement, and 13 percent said “don’t know.” As Dave Davis of CNHI News Service wrote, “...basically, about half the students asked thought that the Soviet Union might have had the right idea with ‘Pravda’”With that kind of apathy, it’s not surprising that most people don’t get too riled by stories of elected officials planting fake reporters in press conferences to ask the “right” questions while giving the appearance of a free press. And most people thought it was somewhat comical a couple of months ago when a local college student was questioned, and mildly threatened, I understand, by the F.B.I. because of something he wrote in the school newspaper.And will “fact checking” become an obsolete ritual as the line between bonified journalists and everyone else becomes blurred as the technology for anyone to publish on public web logs (blogs) becomes commonplace? I’m not against “blogs”, and am generally a fan of technology, but we’re living in a time when technology is developing faster than we can assimilate the repercussions.There might have been a time when we could take the First Amendment for granted; it was simply part of our lives. But I don’t think we have that luxury now.Yeah, I’d still flatten, or attempt to flatten, anyone who insulted my dad. But I’d also have to tell Dad that in the thirty years since that ordeal, I’ve come to believe so strongly in the freedom of the press, and I know that citizens need accurate information so that they can form opinions, whether those opinions meet the approval of the government or not.I’d have to recommend that even small town boards like his keep their meetings open.

Bonnie Prinsen is a regular columnist with the Fillmore County Journal.

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