EDITORIAL: Freedom of speech takes a step backward

by Apr 9, 2018OPINIONS




The cause of a free and open press took a hit last week, albeit a symbolic one, in the Tribal Council Chambers on Thursday, April 5. A member of the press, Holly Kays from The Smoky Mountain News, was directed to leave the Council Chambers at the direction of the Tribal Council. She was removed following a vote of 11 Council members to one to ban any media except for the Cherokee One Feather from the Tribal Council chambers during sessions.

We do not have confirmation on exactly what happened to precipitate this action by the Tribal Council. The move was made by Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke and while she did not discuss the reason at the time she made her move, she did provide some insight during the Budget Council session held on Tuesday, April 3. She addressed the issue during the Principal Chief’s report, “I know that there is freedom of the press and freedom of speech and all of that, but Tribal Council, I am going to ask you to ask Holly not to enter these chambers, because she called me the other day and said can I quote you and I said ‘no, don’t make me look ignorant’, because she had a different quote from what I had said, but she did anyway…The Smoky Mountain News is not quoting us right, so I am going to ask Tribal Council to ask her to step out. That would be my suggestion.”

On Thursday, the move was to remove all media except for the “Cherokee press”. Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha clarified the move to state Cherokee One Feather.

The action is primarily symbolic. Kays was in Chambers at the time of the vote and Chairman Wachacha immediately directed her to leave the Chambers, but not the building, and told her that it was fine for her to sit in the lobby of the Council House. Even if the order had been to remove her from the building, she may watch Tribal Council sessions via Internet livestream or the government channel on Cherokee Cablevision.

One thing that should concern us about a member of the press being removed from the Chambers is that there was no due process. Kays was not given any opportunity to defend her alleged actions.

Rep. Saunooke is a highly respected leader and member of our community, and she is known for her integrity in office. And, while there is no reason to doubt her words on April 3, and non-Native people do not have standing in our Tribal functions, unless they are granted by our leadership, to summarily banish anyone from the Chambers is an act that gives us pause. Regardless of what we may think of Holly Kays and/or The Smoky Mountain News, many of our people read their articles and are documented in their pages. Tribal Council should have given her the opportunity to at least comment, explain, or defend herself, prior to removing her from the Chambers.

The vote taken was a broad-brush action that literally bans all media except for the Cherokee One Feather from the Chambers during Tribal Council sessions. If the grievance was with the reporting of Kays and The Smoky Mountain News, then why ban all media outlets? One of the responsibilities of the press is to document and hold government accountable. The press is held accountable by our fellow media and journalists.

We think this action sends a message that should be concerning to anyone interested in a free press. While the Cherokee One Feather strives to provide unbiased news free of political influence, we will forever be perceived as being swayed by the government because we are a tribal program. Even if the elected officials maintain a communications distance from us, our laws are not strong enough to prevent manipulation of the Cherokee One Feather, should they choose to do so.

We push ever forward to secure protections under the law that will provide the community a truly free press, but, in the meantime, outside media provide the valuable service of assisting the One Feather in the documentation of tribal history. News media is often referred to as the “first draft” of history. And to document history accurately, we want as many scribes reporting it as possible.

We would like to thank the Tribal Council and Executive Office for their faith and confidence in us. They, and the readership, have been very supportive of our efforts. We would ask the Council to reconsider the action taken on April 5, and rescind the banishment of outside media from the Council chambers. If there are issues with specific journalists or media outlets, and it is necessary to consider banning it, then the parties should be heard in a fair hearing. Removing media and impeding the documentation of news is a matter of great consequence and should be handled as such.

We honor our elder stateswoman, Painttown Representative Tommye Saunooke, and we do not condone any disrespect to her. We feel that there are different avenues to justice that would better serve the causes of accuracy in reporting and free press than the action taken on April 5.