In CNN’s Shadow, Georgia GOP Floats ‘Ethics in Journalism’ Scheme

(CN) — The president of the United States lambastes the network regularly as fake news. A convicted domestic terrorist mailed two pipe bombs to its offices. Now, the Republican legislators from the state whose capital CNN chose for its global headquarters have advanced a bill described as a threat to press freedom.

President Donald Trump speaks to CNN journalist Jim Acosta during a news conference in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Titled the “Ethics in Journalism Act,” the bill introduced this week by House GOP lawmakers in Georgia would vest a nine-member board with the power to accredit and discipline reporters with little accountability or transparency.

“Communications to the board and its members relating to journalistic misconduct or incapacity and testimony given in any disciplinary proceeding shall be absolutely privileged and no civil suit predicated thereon shall be instituted or maintained against any complainant, witness, or counsel of either,” the six-page bill states.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Andy Welch, is an attorney who complained about what he saw as bias from a TV reporter grilling him about legislation.

If approved, the measure would also require news organizations to provide copies of pictures and audio and video recordings of interviews to subjects who request them or risk civil penalty. The board itself would be immune from any action. 

The University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, home to the Peabody Awards, is specified in the legislation as the site of the proposed boards. Janice Hume, the head of that college’s journalism department, told Courthouse News that the bill blindsided her institution.

“We did not coordinate with legislators on this bill,” Hume wrote in an email. “We were as surprised by it as everyone else.”

Jonathan Peters, a media law professor at Grady College, found little chance the bill would survive legislative or judicial scrutiny.

“The bill strikes me as a publicity stunt with little chance of passing, but its provisions are nonetheless remarkable because of their offensiveness to basic First Amendment principles,” Peters wrote in an email.

Welch, who drafted the bill, ended his term as a state representative this week and did not return a request for comment.

Reminiscent of a less-transparent Supreme Court, the nine-person board would be created through a byzantine process. The bill calls for the University System of Georgia’s chancellor, who is currently Steve Wrigley, to nominate an appointment board, which in turn would install the panel and disband.

Wrigley did not respond to phone and email inquiries by press time.

It is unclear whether Georgia lawmakers consulted with any academics before filing the legislation, but scholars outside the state found the bill troubling.

“Can someone send them a copy of the damned First Amendment?” Jeff Jarvis, the director of the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, tweeted, referring to the Georgia Legislature.

Local press-freedom fighters seem to agree. Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told the state’s top newspaper: “Frankly, this is the kind of proposal one would expect to surface in a banana republic, not the Peach State.”

CNN’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

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