By New York State Assemblymember Charles Lavine

An alarming trend is taking place that is undermining one of the preeminent tenets of our U.S. Constitution – freedom of the press. Faced with the prospect of bad publicity, people in positions of authority, in some cases with a particularly conservative political ideology, are using the legal system as a weapon in a war with an institution once seen as a bedrock of democracy and now perceived as an enemy.

The Wausau Pilot & Review is on the verge of bankruptcy due to the expense of legal bills needed to pay to defend against a defamation suit filed by Cory Tomczyk who now resides on the Republican side in the Wisconsin State Senate. The details of the case are well-known here and by now, nationwide, including in the district I represent in Northeast Nassau County, Long Island, New York. 

As reported here, Mr. Tomczyk, referred to a 13-year old boy as a “fag” at a public hearing. Tomczyk subsequently sued for defamation but the case was dismissed in April of this year because he failed to meet the legal standard to establish a case. Tomczyk has appealed, resulting in more legal fees. Pilot editor and publisher Shereen Siewert now struggles to pay to fight the legal case and her small staff of four.  

In Kansas – another small-town paper under assault – literally. One can’t help but see the link between the recent raid of the Marion County Record’s offices and its investigation of the local police chief.  On August 11th of this year, the Marion, Kanas Police Dept, confiscated computers, cell phones and a range of other material at the offices of the Record. While it had not published any stories, the Record had been looking into allegations of misconduct against the local police chief. The paper’s publisher tells the Kansas Reflector that the message from police and the local political establishment was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.” 

As in Wausau, the Marion case is getting national attention. According to The Intercept, the raid was strongly condemned in a letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to the Marion County Chief of Police, which was signed by 36 news media and press freedom organizations. The letter states, “Newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public.”

This accounting of recent instances by the Philadelphia Inquirer makes clear Wausau and Marion are by no means alone in in terms of instances of press intimidation: 

  • An Oklahoma sheriff caught on tape earlier this year discussing ways to murder reporters. 
  • A government official in Las Vegas charged last year with murdering an investigative reporter who wrote stories about his bullying tactics of subordinates and his relationship with an employee.
  • The homes of two journalists in New Hampshire vandalized last year after stories detailed sexual assault allegations against the operator of an addiction treatment center.
  • Reporters threatened and harassed for covering the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
  • Some local governments have stopped paying to print public notices in newspapers because of unfavorable coverage.
  • Elon Musk banned several reporters from the X social media platform, formerly known as Twitter, who aggressively covered his company.   

And then of course there is arguably the ringleader in this war against responsible journalism, Mr. Donald J. Trump – who has accused the press of being an “enemy of the people” according to the New York Times.  The Times also reports that Trump has filed numerous unsuccessful defamation lawsuits against news organizations, the latest of which, a $475 million whopper against CNN was thrown out by a federal judge for lack of merit. 

As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the New York State Assembly, it is my duty to ensure that justice is being properly served and that’s part of why I believe so strongly in the cases cited here.  On a personal level, I not only have a background in journalism, giving me a great respect for the critical role journalists play in our society, but I was raised in Marinette, Menominee, Manistique, and Green Bay. This gives me an added level of appreciation for what life is like in small town America and how easily powerful forces can take advantage. 

Back in my district, a woman named Marie Colvin was an award-winning hero journalist who lost her life covering war atrocities in Syria. Marie used to say, “Be passionate and be involved in what you believe in and do it as thoughtfully and honestly as you can . . .Our mission is to speak truth to power.”

We need to stand up and fight for independent journalism.  Let us all speak ‘truth to power!”

Assemblymember Charles Lavine represents New York’s 13th Assembly District in Nassau County. He presently serves as Chair of the Judiciary Committee and is a member of the Committee on Codes, Ethics and Guidance, Rules and Insurance. Lavine previously served as Chair of the Election Law Committee, Chair of the Committee on Ethics and Guidance, co-Chair of the New York State Legislative Ethics Commission and as Chair of the bipartisan Taskforce that produced the Assembly Speaker’s Policy on Sexual Harassment, Retaliation and Discrimination. Lavine is President of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Jewish Legislators and a member of its national board of directors.

Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.