News outlets, press freedom groups to DOJ: don’t let GOP states criminalize abortion coverage

"We ask that you publicly reiterate the press freedoms granted under the First Amendment, and remind states that they cannot infringe on those rights when news outlets write about abortion."

More than two dozen newsrooms and press freedom groups sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday, calling on the Justice Department to prevent journalists and their employers from being prosecuted for simply writing about abortion.

At issue is a campaign, led by the National Right to Life Committee, to expand the GOP’s devastating assault on reproductive freedom and other constitutional rights. In mid-June, anticipating that the U.S. Supreme Court’s reactionary majority would soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the forced pregnancy group drafted and circulated model legislation to state lawmakers around the country.

If enacted, the legislation—already under consideration in the South Carolina Legislature, with more Republican-controlled states likely to follow in the near future—would prohibit “aiding and abetting” someone seeking an abortion, including by “hosting or maintaining a website… that encourages or facilitates efforts to obtain an illegal abortion.”

As the letter—spearheaded by Mother Jones and Rewire News Group and signed by 24 other outlets and trade associations—makes clear, such a measure “could be loosely interpreted to criminalize news organizations and reporters for merely posting stories about abortion on their websites.”

“There is precedent for state legislatures enacting nearly identical laws that trample on people’s rights, and there is a history of well-funded organizations and individuals targeting news organizations through legal action that drains resources and can put newsrooms out of business,” the letter states.

Mother Jones, for instance, “spent $2.5 million over two years fending off a lawsuit by a conservative billionaire who claimed he had been defamed in one of their 2012 stories,” the letter continues. “The ordeal diverted tremendous time and money from normal day-to-day operations,” and the magazine’s finances “were compromised for years.”

If “aiding and abetting” abortion bills are signed into law, “news organizations would be vulnerable in states where they maintain offices, and potentially in states where affected employees reside,” says the letter. “Rather than risk the threat of jail time, fines or legal fees, some news organizations may not be able to publish stories about abortion and possibly even contraceptives.”

In essence, “such laws would enable state governments to dictate which stories can be reported and published, at a time when an independent press is needed more than ever,” the letter notes.

The newsrooms and press freedom groups implored Garland “to honor the protections of the U.S. Constitution and defend the news organizations that play a critical role in bringing attention to all the issues in our society.”

“We ask that you publicly reiterate the press freedoms granted under the First Amendment, and remind states that they cannot infringe on those rights when news outlets write about abortion, whether they and their reporters work and live in states where abortion is legal or illegal,” they wrote.

“If any state enacts such legislation,” they added, “we ask that you intervene and use whatever authority is granted to the Department of Justice to halt the overall law from taking effect or provisions that may punish news organizations and reporters.”

All 26 signatories are listed below:

Mother Jones
Rewire News Group
Scalawag Magazine
BuzzFeed News

The Marshall Project
The Intercept
The Nation
The American Prospect
The New Republic

The Center for Investigative Reporting
Capital B
Center for Public Integrity
Dame Magazine

PEN America
Center for Media at Risk
Institute for Nonprofit News
Radio Television Digital News Association
New York News Publishers Association
Media Matters for America
News Leaders Association

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Kenny Stancil is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @kenny_stancil

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