Empire Editorial: Meet the Alaska Legislature’s new restriction on free speech

  • Friday, October 16, 2015 1:04am
  • Opinion

It’s a rare day when someone wakes up in the morning with the intent to make a mistake.

Most mistakes are made when our actions fail to perfectly match our intentions.

This week, the Alaska Legislature created a new rule addressing how the media may cover the Alaska Legislature. In the event of a medical emergency — if someone suffers a heart attack, a fall down the stairs or a paper cut, then needs an ambulance — no photography is allowed. Any journalist who attempts to take a photograph on the capitol grounds during that emergency will have his or her press pass revoked.

In our opinion, this is a solution in search of a problem, and if misused, this rule could have grave consequences for free speech and free access in Alaska.

Last year, Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, suffered a medical emergency — he collapsed due to a “low blood count,” a spokesman said at the time — on the floor of the House of Representatives. At the time, House rules forbade the photography of any medical emergency on the floors of the House or Senate.

The cameras of Gavel Alaska — which broadcasts Legislative hearings — obediently panned away from the prostrate Nageak, and Empire reporter Katie Moritz kept her cellphone camera off.

When Nageak was taken off the floor and into an adjacent office, Gavel Alaska’s Jeremy Hsieh (a former Empire employee) and Skip Gray attempted to get a picture of the scene from the hallway. When they realized the situation, they went outside and got a picture of an ambulance pulling up to the Capitol to take Nageak to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage and chairman of the House Rules Committee, says Hsieh and Gray were impeding Nageak’s medical care by refusing to get out of the nearby hallway.

Hsieh and Gray briefly had their credentials revoked, but those credentials were restored when it was realized that the pair had broken no rules.

Hsieh says the pair were not obstructing first responders. “You don’t walk between the firefighter and the fire,” he told Nathaniel Herz of the Alaska Dispatch News.

The event the two were documenting was clearly newsworthy, and if Gavel Alaska operates as this newspaper does, publishing a photo or an account of a vulnerable person is a decision made only after careful thought and consideration.

The prototypical motto of a journalist says that good journalism should comfort the weak and afflict the powerful. In any case, any photographs of an injured Nageak have never been published.

The grounds of the Capitol are supposed to be a public space just as much as the road or sidewalk are. The general public — not just the press — has a right to be there.

The profusion of cellphone cameras has granted the world easy, immediate access to events. Restrictions on the media are a foolhardy attempt to control the narrative. When professionals are restricted, amateurs will fill the gap. Alaska’s capitol journalists, though few in number, are among the most professional in the state.

Restricting them has no effect but to make the public believe there is something to hide, and it is futile to hide when there are cameras in the pockets of every person in the Capitol.

We suspect this rule is also illegal under Article 1, Section 5 of the Alaska Constitution: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.”

The House’s new rule appears to at best be a solution in search of a problem. At worst, it’s a tool that could be manipulated to quash public discourse and protect the powerful.

It’s also futile. In the event of an emergency like the 2014 shooting in the Canadian Parliament, any journalist worth his or her salt will gather news first, rule or no rule.

Gavel Alaska may be reluctant to speak for itself. It is paid to broadcast the hearings of the Alaska Legislature.

We feel an obligation to speak on its behalf and say what it cannot: The Alaska Legislature may have good intentions with this rule, but those intentions do not excuse a serious error.

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