Does The Law Do Enough To Protect Reporters From Criminal Assault?

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

New criminal laws have been added by Congress with fervor in the past several years. There are growing categories of laws that help to enhance punishment against anyone who perpetrates crimes against certain people, according to their employment or status in the community. Many are asking whether it might be time to take a good look at whether journalists should be added to the list of those who are protected.

A candidate in Montana’s congressional election was recently charged with misdemeanor assault after he physically assaulted a reporter in Bozeman. Reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian asked the candidate about the score of the health care plan, and according to Jacobs, was “body slammed” by Greg Gianforte, a Republican candidate, who then broke Jacobs’ glasses.


There are a number of overlapping federal laws that criminalize assault to any member of the three main branches of the government. Those branch employees have special laws enacted to enhance punishment to anyone who harms them. Making physical contact with anyone who works as a government employee has the potential of prosecution with the maximum penalty of eight years in prison. If there are any allegations of physical or bodily injury, the punishment jumps to as many as twenty years behind bars.


When a Dallas criminal attorney compares that to the misdemeanor assault charge, which ended in bodily harm to Jacobs, for which Gianforte received only six months, it hardly seems equitable. Because Jacobs was not part of one of the protected groups and was therefore considered “just” a citizen, there was no elevation of charges.


Many are questioning why there are laws that protect government officials and law enforcement with enhanced punishment for crimes made against them, but journalists are not given the same protection.

Although journalists are not officially a part of the government, the Constitution does consider them a fundamental component of the democracy that America is based on. According to the Constitution, the press is protected against Congress, but not against people who physically attack them.


For the same reason that the forefathers of the American Constitution added protections for journalists, so should the court system. Journalists put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis. They risk bodily harm reporting all sorts of things that people don’t want reported. Yet there are no punishments in place for those who try to stop reporters from doing their jobs.


Once more, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department have all sorts of restrictions related to hate crimes. They consider crimes perpetrated against someone based solely on who they are, what they believe, or the color of their skin as hate crimes. But they don’t make the same allowance for those trying to make sure that America stays a free-press nation, where the average citizen can be aware of what goes on around the nation and the world.


The notion of “bias crimes,” like protecting government officials and police officers, means the criminal justice system seeks to protect those who are performing a service that puts them in inherent danger. There are very few that would argue that journalists don’t fall into a category all their own.


The only recourse journalists” have is to seek damages in the form of personal injury suits, but that does nothing to impose criminal prosecution or to make sure that those who seek to provide the American public with the knowledge they require to keep the government in check, safe.


If the Constitution recognizes how critical the press is and affords them constitutional rights, it would only make sense that the criminal system should do the same. Otherwise, there is no incentive not to use violence to stop someone from telling the truth.


Whether new laws with stiffer penalties will be added to protect journalists from being assaulted  remains to be seen. The biggest problem is trying to figure out how to classify a reporter, especially in the new age of online magazines. But it is undeniable that no one should be put in danger because of what they do for a living.

Hugh Howerton