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Courts Again Top Congress and Administration at Protecting Media's First Amendment Rights, Media Institute Annual Review Finds

FOR RELEASE: April 13, 2000

Contact: Richard T. Kaplar
The Media Institute
703-243-5700

 

Washington, D.C. - The courts performed noticeably better than either Congress or Executive Branch agencies at protecting the First Amendment rights of the media in 1999, according to an annual review released by The Media Institute.

The First Amendment and the Media - 2000 examines government actions on 43 separate issues that affected media speakers and freedom of the press in 1999. Subtitled "An Assessment of Free Speech and a Free Press by The Media Institute and its First Amendment Advisory Council," the report rates the overall performance of the three branches of federal government plus state and local government as follows:

Executive
Branch
C-
Legislative
Branch
C
Judicial
Branch
B-
State &
Local
C-

A number of court decisions on cyberspace issues helped account for the Judicial Branch's relatively high marks. Federal courts enjoined or dismissed three state laws restricting Internet content and barred enforcement of a federal law limiting online speech. Other federal courts ruled that the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory actions were indeed subject to First Amendment scrutiny, and struck down state laws in Kentucky and Rhode Island that restricted the release of public records.

The Executive Branch received a C- for actions that included an FCC inquiry into new public interest obligations for digital broadcasters and proposed rules requiring broadcasters in major markets to provide "video descriptions" of programming.

Congress rated a C, not because it passed any pro-First Amendment legislation, but primarily because it considered but declined to pass a number of egregiously harmful bills.

At the state and local level, meanwhile, legislative and regulatory bodies rated very poor grades for myriad attempts to impose restrictions on outdoor advertising. However, these were offset by a number of pro-First Amendment decisions by state courts, resulting in the overall State & Local grade of C-.

Last year's grades, by comparison, were somewhat lower for all but the Judicial Branch: Executive D+; Legislative D+; Judicial B-; and State & Local D-.

"This year, as in the previous three years we studied, the political branches of government once again came up short compared to the courts," said Richard T. Kaplar, vice president of The Media Institute and editor of the report.

"Even though this year's grades were slightly higher than last year's, these 'Cs' reflect, at best, a neutral or ambivalent First Amendment stance among policymakers -- hardly a cause for celebration," Kaplar said.

The report examines 43 government actions in four major categories: (1) online issues; (2) broadcasting and cable television; (3) commercial speech; and (4) libel law / tort actions / media restraints. The report's 43 chapters were written by 14 communications and constitutional authorities, most of whom are members of The Media Institute's

First Amendment Advisory Council.

Copies of The First Amendment and the Media - 2000 are available for review by working journalists, or may be purchased for $15.95 each (plus $2 shipping) from the Publications Department, The Media Institute, Suite 301, 1000 Potomac St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007. Orders may be phoned to 202-298-7512 or faxed to 202-337-7092