It goes against the grain to go against the grain, especially when government authorities are slapping journalists around.
I have spent my entire adult life nurturing an adversarial relationship, often bitterly adversarial, with government. It is the sacred duty of the press to act as though the nation's survival depends on contrariness.
Nevertheless, it is time to swim against the current journalistic tide when it comes to some issues, such as the "right" of journalists, and only journalists, to make pests of themselves in polling places.
Also at issue is whether we should have a special right to be shielded from demands that we betray confidential sources, and whether it is proper for government authorities to make unwarranted searches and seizures aimed at journalists.
As for the Orwellian policies of the Obama administration and other tyrants on unwarranted searches, I share the outrage of other journalists and civil libertarians.
When it comes to special rights for journalists at polling places or in shielding sources, I balk. If we word merchants believe in the principle that rights must be for all citizens, then we cannot condone special rights that benefit only ourselves.
As reported the other day, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by a Pennsylvania newspaper fighting restrictions on journalists in polling places.
The state Election Code does not pick on news people. It says nobody is allowed within 10 feet of a polling place during voting except for certain individuals, such as those who are voting, elections officers, poll watchers and police officers.
Can you imagine the uproar if lobbyists were allowed inside polling places to pester voters? But Frederick Frank, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's lawyer, said the rule violated "significant First Amendment rights for the media." That would be true if the First Amendment applied only to the press freedom of professional journalists. It doesn't. It applies to press freedom, period, and that distinction is crucial.
Consider another recent news topic.
All but one state (Wyoming) have "shield laws" that say professional journalists cannot be compelled to reveal confidential sources. Such laws have a rational benefit; without them, whistle-blowers would be afraid to divulge wrongdoing to journalists.
I have benefited (reluctantly) from the Pennsylvania Shield Law, but I also have been in situations where such a law did not apply and I faced court sanctions for refusing to name sources. Happily, the threats went nowhere, as often happens, especially when government officials are trying to find out who spilled the beans.
On principle, as I have reported often, I oppose the shield laws as written.
Pennsylvania's law applies only to those "connected with or employed by any newspaper of general circulation or any press association or any radio or television station, or any magazine of general circulation," and says they cannot "be required to disclose the source of any information."
That means a special class (we newspaper types, for example) has a right not afforded to most people.
"Rights apply to all citizens," I wrote in 1997, pointing out that the state law, as written, would not have shielded Thomas Paine. Establishing a right for a special class, I wrote in 2004, "smacks of licensing, and licensing is a pathway to official control."
If there is a price to be paid for defying authority, legitimate journalists must be prepared to pay it, and should stop groveling around, begging for special treatment bestowed by government authorities. Shield laws will be worthy only if they are changed to apply to all citizens and prevent the forced disclosure of sources of information publicly disseminated by anyone.
The most important controversy involving journalists, by far, involves the actions of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and, apparently, his predecessors, in having government spooks snoop into the private correspondence of individual news people with blanket unwarranted searches.
And on this matter I am not swimming against the tide. I share the view that this practice is un-American and despicable.
Ostensibly to find out who was leaking details of secret government operations to The Associated Press, the Justice Department eavesdropped on American journalists, grabbing thousands of personal phone records. Holder, The Washington Post reported, even snooped into the phone lines of "the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery."
So he is protecting America from what members of Congress might tell reporters.
When caught with his fingers in the unwarranted search cookie jar, Holder unconscionably borrowed a line from Col. Nathan Jessup in the movie "A Few Good Men," saying his actions were to stop leaks that "put American lives at risk."
Rubbish. Many American lives have been spent defending the Bill of Rights and it is Holder who is besmirching those sacrifices.
Last weekend, it was reported that Holder assured journalists they will not be prosecuted for writing stories based on the leaks of secrets. He was, in effect, smiling like a Cheshire Cat and saying, "Trust us. We only want to protect you by keeping things secret from you, so keep in mind that Big Brother is watching."
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.