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Angele Latham is a First Amendment reporter for The Tennesseean.

557. The First Amendment is her beat

Reporters and those who work in news probably know more than the average American about the First Amendment.

“As journalists, it’s kind of a big deal. We’re kind of fond of it,” jokes Angele Latham, the first reporter at The Tennessean whose beat solely is dedicated to covering First Amendment issues. “But it touches far more than people realize. As a paper, we realized this was an issue that maybe the general public wasn’t understanding as well, or people weren’t understanding their rights. In a world where politics are so polarized and everything goes to such extremes on either side, it’s hard for people to understand where they’re allowed to stand up for their rights in that push and pull. As a paper, we really want to make sure we have someone dedicated to that beat to really expand on this and explain to the general public what their rights were.” 

Funded by a Freedom Forum grant through Journalism Funding Partners, Latham’s beat consolidates into one role a topic that previously was divvied up across other beats.

“A lot of the issues were kind of just parsed between beats,” she says. “A lot of it falls under the justice beat. We also have a really dedicated religious reporter. A lot of the religion and government overlap, a lot of things that do fall under the First Amendment, would fall to him. So it’s not that these things weren’t covered, but there’s also daily coverage we might consider breaking news. If you have someone dedicated to the First Amendment beat, you can pull out all the First Amendment issues.” 

One of the first pieces Latham wrote for The Tennessean was something that would have been assigned previously to the religion reporter.

The Sumner County governing board passed a preamble amendment to the county’s documents, stating that the county was “upholding Judeo-Christian values. Normally, if I had not been sitting there, that would’ve fallen under the religion beat,” Latham says. “Clearly, it’s a religion issue. But it’s also very much a First Amendment issue, because you can’t show a preference to a certain religion in stated county documents saying this is a Judeo-Christian county. It really helped me dive into the church/state overlap part of the First Amendment.” 

Recently, Latham was covering a hostage situation and ran into a First Amendment issue with the police department. 

“I was standing outside the police barrier and there was a bit of a conflict,” she says. “There was a little bit of a pushback. They didn’t want us there. I raised the point, we are outside the barrier you put up. If I am not in a safe space, you might want to move the barrier. I’m very much allowed to report on this. It was a tense situation.” 

It’s important for everyone to understand their rights, but reporters especially, Latham says. It’s possible those of us who rely on the First Amendment to do our jobs don’t always understand the full power and protections guaranteed in it. 

“It’s very easy to chill the First Amendment right to assemble because it’s very easy to intimidate someone out of a meeting. If you don’t know the nuances of the law, it’s very easy (for a government official) to be like ‘You can’t come to this meeting” with this person not knowing they absolutely have a First Amendment right to be there,” Latham says. “Or open record access, things like that. I think reporters have a good understanding but I think I’m privileged that I have a beat dedicated to this.” 

 

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