The events this past weekend in Legislative Plaza remind us that the media’s role as the watchdog of government on behalf of the people is an essential component of democracy. Whether or not one agrees with the goals of the Occupy Nashville protesters, all Americans can agree that having media coverage of the action our government took to remove them is important in a civil society. The founders of our country built in certain protections against tyranny, including multiple branches of government and a free press. When our government resorts to force against its own citizens, we want the media there so we can all bear witness.
That is why journalists and media outlets around the country are reacting with outrage to the arrest and disparagement of a reporter last weekend. Jonathan Meador was on assignment at the plaza to cover the protests late Friday night and early Saturday. There is video of him taping the events and talking with his editor shortly after midnight. As the deadline to clear the plaza approached, he tried to get the names of those about to be arrested. In his efforts, he did not get out of the way in time to avoid being grabbed by officers.
I don’t fault them for apprehending him. It was a dark and confusing scene. But when he loudly and clearly identified himself as a reporter, they should have given him a chance to offer proof. Instead, as witnesses tried to vouch for his standing as a journalist, they were threatened with arrest as well.
When I learned of these events, I was outraged. As a publisher, as an employer, and as an American, I was appalled at the arrest of a reporter in the line of duty. We cannot have true democracy if journalists are not able to report on the activities of our government without fear of arrest and retribution. The founders understood this and wrote it into the Bill of Rights.
When the governor raised his hand and swore to uphold the Constitution, I assumed he included in that pledge to uphold the freedom of the press. As the elected official to whom these officers ultimately report, the governor has a responsibility to apologize for their mistake and to assure journalists in this state that they can conduct their work without fear. Instead, all we have received is silence from the governor and smearing of our reporter’s reputation by his appointed official. Frankly, I was surprised. The Bill of Rights isn’t a partisan issue. We all have a civic responsibility to uphold the First Amendment freedoms. Therefore, we cannot let this breach of one of our basic and essential rights go unchallenged. On this issue, there is no compromise.
So again I ask: Gov. Haslam, will you apologize for the mistake your officers made in arresting a member of the media who declared himself as such to them, and assure the rest of the media that the state of Tennessee will maintain the freedom of the press? Journalists here and around the country await your answer.