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FORUM BRINGS FIRST AMENDMENT ISSUES HOME

April 9, 2002 – The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is all of one sentence long:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
But that sentence has become the basis for a far-reaching, and ever-evolving, body of law regarding press rights versus individual rights in the United States. With the First Amendment as their topic, lawyers and journalists gathered on the St. Thomas campus of the University of the Virgin Islands recently to explore the relationship between the press and the public it serves.
The discussion was a forum presented at last week's UVI Humanities Festival, itself a part of the wider 40th anniversary observances at UVI this year. Much of the dialogue centered on conflicting rights derived through interpretations of the Constitution — the right of reporters to gather and present the news versus the rights of citizens to protect their reputations and their privacy.
Attorney Frederick Watts, a panel member, said that because they are public figures, government officials don't enjoy the same First Amendment protections that other citizens do in the things they say and the things they do. Watts, who once served as legal counsel for the Associated Press Caribbean Bureau, led the panel discussion, which centered on the contemporary legal standard used for gauging First Amendment rights, the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case known as New York Times v. Sullivan.
The landmark case found that the Times was not negligent in publishing what a Montgomery, Alabama, commissioner said was libel. The court concluded that to prove libel, a "public figure" must show that the defendant published information with knowledge that it was false or out of reckless disregard for whether it was true or false. This became known as the doctrine of "actual malice."
Watts told the gathering: "The important holding of Times v. Sullivan is while a private citizen has the right not to have defamatory remarks made against him or her, public officials and [by later extension] public figures have to prove that reporters acted with malice."
In the case, the commissioner's reputation stood before the court as personal property, protected by the same Constitution that guarantees press freedom. The high court had to weigh one right against the other. The news media have continued to represent their role in society as "the public's eyes and ears," Watts said.
Does conflict like this arise in real life, in places like the Virgin Islands? "Happens all the time," Watts said.
That's why news organizations have legal counsel.
During the forum, panelists offered some thoughts on a current local First Amendment controversy — news media access to government gatherings.
Late last month, police told reporters attending a press conference that they would have to apply for media passes that would eventually be required to get into the Legislature, Government House and other official venues. The Police Department spokeswoman, Sgt. Annette Raimer, called the move a security measure in light of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland.
Another panelist, attorney Adriane Dudley, cast doubt for the future of this policy based on her experience as legal counsel for the V.I. Daily News. While there may be instances where the use of press passes is appropriate, she said, restricting access to government officials and government meetings is not among them.
Dudley recalled that years ago, then-governor Juan Luis barred then-Daily News reporter Penny Feuerzeig from a meeting at Government House. A lawsuit ensued and the court ruled in favor of Feuerzeig, she said.
"The V.I. Press Association filed suit against Gov. Juan Luis in 1979, I believe," Feuerzeig said Monday. The suit, she recalled, charged that "he violated the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment by refusing to allow me to attend a meeting he held at Government House with the WAPA [Water and Power Authority] board. Judge Almeric Christian ruled in the press association's favor."
Feuerzeig went on to become executive editor at The Daily News. She was replaced as executive editor in January 1998, immediately after Jeffrey Prosser bought the paper. Feuerzeig resigned as editorial page editor in May 1998 and now serves on the advisory board for the Source.
At the forum on Friday, Dudley explained that constitutional questions arise when policies allow some reporters access to government officials while excluding others, regardless of whether they have a media pass or not.
The third panel member, Haven Daley, news director of cable television station TV2, said instances of private citizens and public officials bumping up against press freedom to gather and report the news are common. As an example, he cited a recent incident where a person on St. Croix was killed while invading the home of a police officer. A reporter shot video footage of the officer's home where the incident occurred, prompting the officer's protest to Police Chief Novelle Francis. Daley said while legally he did not have to do so, he chose to comply with the police chief's request to keep the shot of the officer's house out of the story.
Daley also cited the case of an armed robbery on St. Thomas where police took a person into custody who later turned out not to be a suspect. A reporter on the scene had captured the image of the man being led away in handcuffs and used it in the story that aired. The next day the station ran the video footage again with an explanation that the man was not a suspect in the robbery.
Dudley said corrections and clarifications by the news media help to keep the press out of court. In fact, she said, the local news media have become more diligent in making such corrections, and as a result the number of lawsuits against the media has dropped dramatically from years gone by. "I think our media is excellent at correcting and retracting information as soon as they find out it is incorrect," she said.

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