As we celebrate Independence Day it is important to remember that we wouldn't be independent were it not for an unfettered press. Troublemaking writers such as Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine and John Dickinson rallied reluctant colonial citizens to fight a government they believed oppressive.
But should we impose our ideas of a free press on people whose ancestors were here long before the pilgrims ever stepped foot on Plymouth Rock?
Last week Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten Jr. announced he had shut down the Two Rivers Tribune, the only Native American-owned newspaper in California and one that has earned a reputation for gutsy reporting in the eastern part of this county.
He cited two reasons: The expense of some $189,000 in Bureau of Indian Affairs funds and recent articles the paper published that angered many people in the small community.
What set this off was a series of stories the Tribune ran on a manhunt for Jason Hunsucker, one of four people suspected in the May 5 killing of Darrell Hanger as a result of a botched burglary attempt.
On June 28, the Tribune published a story that told Hunsucker's side; he had contacted Tribune freelance reporter Shelly Middleton. In the story he admits to driving his sister and her boyfriend in a stolen car to burglarize a house they had previously burglarized. The same day, the paper ran an editorial urging Hunsucker to turn himself in to police.
The publication of the story outraged many people. In online comments, some argued that reporters shouldn't interview criminals and shouldn't publish articles that could paint them in a sympathetic light.
But those people misunderstand the role of the journalist. We call the press in this country the Fourth Estate. That's because we see it as a check on the three branches of government. It is the role of the press to serve as a check on police actions. Because of that, journalists should remain neutral observers when covering crime. Reporters serve the larger public, and that public includes lawbreakers. Even convicted felons don't lose First Amendment rights. Neither do those who have yet to be convicted of a crime. Journalists must be careful not to play judge and jury.
Those who argue that journalists shouldn't interview criminals forget one of the most important books of the 20th Century -- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. In it he interviewed two men convicted of brutally murdering a Kansas family and he painted a portrait of one of the killers in a sympathetic light. It won the Pulitzer Prize and changed the way we tell nonfiction stories. Journalists need to be able to interview criminals so that we get a better understanding of crime. And they need to interview people in jail because sometimes people are wrongfully put there.
These stories are controversial. We don't want to hear the side of someone who does something terrible. And we don't want to find out that our justice system is fallible. But it is to protect uncomfortable reporting that the First Amendment exists.
There is no clearer violation of the First Amendment than for the government to shut down a newspaper. That could only happen when, as is the case of the Tribune, the government publishes the newspaper in the first place. The constitution doesn't require government to fund the press, so there is nothing but political pressure to stop Congress from pulling funding for National Public Radio, for example.
To make matters stickier, the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation was established by Presidential Executive Order back in 1876 and has sovereign rights. But that sovereignty is also subject to constitutional limitations. In 1968, Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act, which extended the Bill of Rights to Indian nations.
The money for the Tribal Government comes from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which means we are talking federal funds. Now, while Congress could pull federal funds away from NPR, can a local government withhold federal funds as retaliation for controversial press coverage?
I don't think so. Consider the separation between church and state. Many religious organizations get government funds for social service programs like operating drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers and homeless shelters. But those funds come with restrictions; the organizations can't proselytize with the funds they get. If they do, they lose the funds. So if the federal government is prohibited by the same constitutional clause against restricting freedom of the press, then federal government funds can't be used in such a way that they would violate freedom of press.
The tiny staff of the Two Rivers Tribune has a difficult job. One of their roles is to report on the actions of the Tribal Council, which is the publisher. They have earned a reputation for gutsy reporting and up till now, the Tribal Council has not interfered with editorial decisions.
Interim Managing Editor Allie Hostler said that Masten overstates the paper's financial problems -- that as a small paper, its revenues fluctuate as advertisers pay their bills. Since the paper relies on a few advertisers, there are times before those bills are paid when the paper appears to lose a great deal of money. But the bills get paid and the deficit closes.
But if Masten shuts the paper down temporarily, it could sever current long-term advertising contracts, and that could cause irreparable harm in today's climate for newspaper advertising. Hostler said she hopes to rally the community to voice its support of the paper. As of Sunday, 97 people had joined the Facebook page "I Support the Two Rivers Tribune."
Hopefully, there will be a backlash to the backlash and the Hoopa Tribal Council will realize that while some news stories are painful to read, more harm will come from the absence of a reliable source of news. What the controversy there reveals is the need for an independent news source.
Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.