First Amendment Woe

By Jeffrey Page

You’re a reporter in Alaska. You trail a candidate for the U.S. Senate into a public building for a public event. You ask a tough question. The candidate demurs. You follow him into the corridor and ask it again. Then he has you arrested by his private goons.

Not since the grim days of Richard Nixon has the nation been subjected a more obvious trashing of the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. But something dark is happening in America and there has been surprisingly little outrage about a reporter’s being held by a swarm of non-cops. What should have been a noisy cause célèbre seems to have been quickly forgotten.

A touch of background. Alaska gave us Sarah Palin. It also gave us the defeat of a sitting Republican Senator, Lisa Murkowski, by the Tea Party favorite, Joe Miller. Murkowski, who ran a close second to Miller in the GOP primary, is waging a write-in campaign. Some polls indicate she stands a chance of upending Miller. The third candidate is the Democrat, Scott McAdams, who, despite the closeness of the Murkowski-Miller race, is not considered a factor.

So, with Murkowski breathing down his neck, Miller wasn’t eager to take tough questions from a reporter.

Miller was making a campaign stop at a public school in Anchorage on Oct. 17 when he was confronted by Tony Hopfinger, the editor of the Alaska Dispatch web site and no lapdog reporter. Hopfinger tried to ask Miller about his alleged improper use of government computers in Fairbanks North Star Borough for political purposes two years ago.

Hopfinger asked again and was told, not by Miller but by his security detail, that if he didn’t shut up he would be arrested for trespassing – at a public event in a public building. Sure enough he asked again, and sure enough Miller’s privately hired thugs placed him in handcuffs and escorted him away from the candidate. Hopfinger was taken to an adjoining hallway where he was held incommunicado for 25 minutes. The security people, two of whom were reported to be active duty Army personnel on free time, said they were going to call the police. When the cops showed up, they ordered the handcuffs removed.

It’s amusing in a morbid kind of way to think about the right wing’s disgust with government and how often it notes Jefferson’s fear of big government. But conservatives never summon up other Jeffersonian traditions, such as the need for an unfettered press.

Jefferson famously said: “… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

He less famously said: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

It’s one thing to refuse to answer reporters’ questions, as cowardly as that is. It’s quite another to have an annoying reporter dragged away in true Stalinist tradition. If anyone is waiting for Miller, Palin, Christine O’Donnell or any of the other Tea Party darlings to even hint that Miller’s goon squad went too far, they should bring provisions. They’re going to have a long wait.

Meanwhile, the question remains: If Miller tolerates this assault on the First Amendment as a candidate, what will he tolerate if he’s elected to the Senate?

Jeffrey can be reached at


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