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Licensing journalists is a bad idea

Oct 16, 2017

I think I can say that I have some professional credibility as a journalist. I have a master’s degree from a major university, a national Emmy award, work in all forms of media, and am in charge of journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Yet legally, I have the same standing as a journalist as a high school dropout who writes a blog in his grandmother’s basement, and that is exactly the way it is supposed to be.

Plumbers are licensed by the state. So are doctors, lawyers, and every other profession great and humble. But I am granted the right to do what I do by a greater authority, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. That’s as sacred a secular document as they come.

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.

That’s why we have the society we have. Thomas Jefferson had many flaws, but he understood that. He once said he’d prefer a country with a free press and no government to one that had a government but no newspapers. The beauty of our Constitution is that it gives us both.

Today we have politicians who do not understand that. Last week, a silly little legislator in Indiana named Jim Lucas announced he had drafted a bill that would require professional journalists to be licensed by the state police.

His bill is going nowhere, and there are indications he doesn’t really mean it. He said he did it to ward off those who want to license handguns.

Mr. Lucas isn’t exactly taken seriously by his colleagues; he has also filed a bill to get rid of marriage licenses and hinted we should be allowed to have nuclear weapons in our homes. If his bill were to pass, it would be quickly declared unconstitutional. But I have no doubt that there are millions who agree with him.

So here’s why he is wrong. If government can say who has the right to be a journalist, that means you have a government that can say who isn’t allowed to be a journalist.

And that would mean the end of freedom of the press, and the end of democracy. If you still think licensing journalists is a good idea, and support the President’s notion that we ought to possibly take away the broadcast licenses of stations he doesn’t like, consider this.

Someday Democrats will take back both the presidency and both houses of Congress. The pendulum always swings back and forth. If journalism licenses could be revoked, how long do you think Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would be on the air then?

By the way, stations that broadcast over the air, like Michigan Radio, are licensed by the government only because the airwaves are public property, like the national parks. Nobody owns them, but we all have an interest in not having competing stations trying to broadcast on the same frequency, and there’s not infinite space on the spectrum.

So the government grants licenses. But they aren’t in the business of revoking them for political reasons, and nobody has the right to regulate what appears in print.

If that ever changes, we won’t have our country any more.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.