A National First Amendment Association

Just for a moment, think about the power and influence of the NRA. Think about its power over both its members and politicians. Think about how, despite gun violence that is unparalleled in the First World, the right of Americans to own assault weapons and pounds of ammo is not in danger. Think about the NRA’s undying and uncompromising defense of the 2nd Amendment.

OK, now imagine that the 1st Amendment had the same sort of organization exercising that kind of power and influence. Pretty cool idea, huh? Wendy Kaminer imagines just such a thing, although without much hope of one.

We need a Free Speech Association, an FSA, with the commitment and clout of the NRA, but we’re unlikely to see one emerge anytime soon, from right or left. Several small advocacy groups, like the National Coalition Against Censorship, are devoted to First Amendment rights; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a fierce defender of speech rights on college campuses. But more powerful lobbying groups on both sides tend to protect their own speech rights, while ignoring or endeavoring to suppress the rights of others.

She makes a pretty good case, too, that we believe in free speech for me but not for thee.

In a slightly wandering way — the way my mind works — I thought about that as I read the latest report card on North Carolina’s access to public records. It’s a F, a grade that would make any parent blanch if their child brought it home. Sadly, I doubt our state, city or county elected officials will care much. After all, the grades they got for accountability weren’t much better.

From The Charlotte Observer: North Carolina public record laws fail to provide oversight for requests and lack a way to appeal denied requests in a cost- and time-efficient way, according to the study. The only way to appeal a denied request is through a lawsuit.

Joann Hager, a Lincoln County animal rights activist, has twice used North Carolina’s open record law. On Monday, Hager said she isn’t surprised the state ranks among the worst for access to public records.

“You can ask, but you probably won’t get public records,” Hager said. “That’s pretty much the way it is. They know there is no enforcement.”

News organizations experience this often. A public board will violate the law, either by meeting in secret or refusing to release records. The news organization will have to hire an attorney to threaten a suit, or actually have to file a suit. It happens time and time again because there is no punishment. And it happens at taxpayers’ expense because we pay the government lawyers.

But if there were an organization with thousands of members raising hell at the slightest encroachment of public access to its own government? Personally, it seems as if that fits within the misson of both the Tea Party and the ACLU.


Sunday sampler

The lull in big news during Fourth of July week — yes, I know it’s hot — must have inspired editors because this Sunday’s newspaper front pages are filled with interesting stories that surprised me and demanded that I read them.

Two from Charlotte — Things aren’t great on the attendance and revenue end of NASCAR, and the Observer digs past the anecdotes to show just what’s happening. The Observer also previews the head-shaking embarrassment that has become the Duke-Progress Energy merger. (I hope our state regulators stand tall on this one.)

Fayetteville — The Observer continues its superb coverage of the troubles of troubled soldiers, this time looking closely at what the military is doing about suicides. The paper tells the compelling story of one private who took his own life. The Star-News in Wilmington has a similar story, equally compelling.

Raleigh — The News & Observer continues its superb coverage of the UNC academic scandal in the Afro-American Studies program. Citizens of the state should be pleased that the N&O is keeping the spotlight on the scandal and UNC’s reaction to it. (Wouldn’t you love to get an interview with the man at the center of it, Julius Nyang’oro?)

Two from Asheville — The Citizen-Times writes about crime — fights, actually — in downtown Asheville. I used to work at the Citizen-Times and like to return to Asheville on occasion so this is really my bias coming through. The story isn’t special, but the topic is. I’m glad the paper told me to be careful (and I suspect the Chamber of Commerce is cringing this morning). Not only that, the Citizen updates readers on Ghost Town in the Sky, which was pretty cool back in the day.

Burlington — The Times-News localizes a state story — originally reported by the Winston-Salem Journal — on eugenics. How the actions of the government hurt citizens’ lives are always worth telling readers.

North Carolina journalists do well in the APSE contest

Congratulations to the newspapers across the state that won Associated Press Sports Editors recognition. It’s the nation’s most prestigious sportswriting contest.

Margaret Banks, Gerald Witt and Jason Wolf of the News & Record. (Wolf also had an individual mention in this category.) — Breaking news

Jason Wolf and Jeff Mills of the News & Record — Beat reporting

Gerald Witt of the News & Record — Investigative

The News & Observer, honorable mention — Sunday section

The Charlotte Observer — Daily section

Tommy Tomlinson of the Charlotte Observer — Features

Despite what many people think, most papers I’m familiar with don’t do journalism to win awards. They are much more focused on doing good journalism for their readers. Congratulations to Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro for doing just that.

Democrats invite 500 media folks, but it’s off the record

A day after the Democratic National Convention Committee reiterated that Charlotte’s gathering would be “the most open and accessible in history,” 500 media representatives were given a tour Wednesday of their September digs.

One of the first orders of business: cone of silence.

Mark Washburn of The Charlotte Observer nails the Democrats for their controlling arrogance in a media walk-through. You’re going to keep hundreds of the media off-the-record? It’s not even as if what they’re briefing the media on is actually that important. I mean, how could the apparatchik think that everyone was going to accept such a thing? The press is not a pussycat; it won’t stand for this blanket off-the-record stuff. Crazy, right? Well….

“A total non-issue,” said Greg Kohler of Charlotte-based NBC News Channel, who has been managing convention setups since 2000. Kohler was more interested in the good news of the day – spots in the arena for his reporters to do stand-ups were going for $1,200 to $1,800, rather than the $10,000 they cost in Denver and at other conventions.

Larry Rubenstein, who runs the logistics for Reuters news service, was focusing on the money, too. In Charlotte, the media can rent chairs at the arena for only $49, a third less than what they were paying in Denver four years ago.

He said off-the-record conversations are common during media orientation, and he thought even the Republicans had some such moments in December. “Accepted practice,” he said. Competitive reasons.

Now, we’re not pussycats. For another take, Rob Christensen of the N&O also got a more traditional story out of the gathering. No mention of the off-the-record status of the meeting.

So many obituaries

In these days right after Christmas, the obituary page is the saddest page of the paper. I think of the families who are mourning a death on Christmas.

The News & Record published 52 obituaries today, taking up nearly four pages in the paper. (The usual is less that two pages.) I don’t know the record number, but I bet 52 competes. Many of the people listed died on Christmas. The paper published 43 obits yesterday and 20 on Dec. 26.

That trend isn’t unusual.

The Charlotte Observer published 98 obits today, 82 yesterday and 32 on Dec. 26.

The News & Observer published 70 obits today, 82 yesterday and 38 on Dec. 26.

The Winston-Salem Journal published 29 obits today, 37 yesterday and 17 on Dec. 26.

There are too many variables for me to attach too much significance to the numbers. The emotional toll on the scores of families simply overwhelmed me when I read the morning paper.