Sunday, July 3, 2022

Local news takes on the Supreme Court. Will it win?

In broadcasting, one mundane but essential task is to check your sound level. It involves speaking into the microphone at approximately the volume you intend to use when you're on the air, while eyeballing a little meter in front of you to adjust your mic level. 

An analog meter features a graduated scale, soft to loud, with a pointy indicator that bounces with your sound level. The scale is mostly black, but it has a section in red on the far right end. The idea is to keep the pointer bouncing mostly in the black, with occasional peaks in the red zone. If the pointer swings all the way to the right and stays there, your mic is way too loud. The technical term is "pegging the needle."

As it happens, it's also an apt description for a ruling that came out of the Supreme Court this week. 

Stolen from Facebook | Creator unknown

No, not that one; that was last week. This week's travesty came in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. You can read a pdf of the ruling here. But basically, the majority opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, reverses a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The appellate court had held the Bremerton, WA, school district was correct to discipline its high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, in 2015 for staging public prayers at midfield after the team's football games. The Supreme Court says the disciplinary action violated Kennedy's First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The problem with the ruling is that Justice Gorsuch gets nearly all of the facts wrong. This column by Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times explains how Kennedy wasn't engaging in "a brief, quiet, personal religious observance," as Justice Gorsuch claims. In fact, Kennedy had made a big deal out of praying at the 50-yard line -- and he'd been incorporating prayer into team workouts as a motivational tool all season. Players weren't required to participate in the postgame prayer rallies, but of course eventually all the players did, at least partly due to fear that Coach wouldn't let them play as much if they didn't participate. (Y'all have been to high school, right? We all know how that works.) Eventually, Kennedy held a news conference before the school's homecoming game, announcing he would give his post-season prayer. He got a lot of press out of it -- Good Morning America even interviewed him -- and as a result, it wasn't just the players out there with him after that game; more than 500 spectators left the bleachers and jumped fences to join them on the field for his 15-second "quiet, personal religious observance."

The general opinion is that the court reinvented the facts here in order to have an excuse to overturn Lemon v. Kurtzman. In that 1971 opinion, the court laid out a three-pronged test to determine whether something violates the First Amendment's "establishment of religion" clause. We do not have a state religion in the United States, and it's unconstitutional for a public employee to promote a particular religion as if we do. In an objective reading of the facts, that's what Kennedy did -- he promoted Christianity, hard, with his very public prayer meetings. But the conservatives on the current court wanted to strike down Lemon, and Kennedy's case was a handy vehicle.

That's scary for those of us in America who aren't Christian. But that point has been made elsewhere. My point is different.

I've opined here before that local journalism matters. Six years ago, I wrote about how just ten companies control a frightening percentage of the news and information business. Three years ago, I cited figures indicating that one in five local newspapers ceased publication between 2004 and 2018; that decline has continued since then. 

Why do I keep making a big deal about local journalism? Because without it -- without local newspapers like the Seattle Times -- there would be no way, when public figures on the national stage lie, for us to learn the truth. 

Support your local independent journalists, guys. They're going to become more and more vital as we bring our country back from the brink.


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