COMMENTARY: Your freedom hinges on freedom of speech

by Sep 1, 2020OPINIONS





When the One Feather was created, a group of community leaders determined that the Tribe should have a way to put out information from the government in mass production so that decisions made by the government were provided quickly to the citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The founders referred to the One Feather as a “news bulletin”. The vision for the community newspaper has been evolving since its conception, beginning with the funding by grant of a mimeographed 5-page business-letter format newsletter with hand drawn illustrations to a professionally printed, tabloid format thirty to forty-page full newspaper with full-color photography funded through a combination of tribal allotment and advertising sales revenue. 

One of the milestones in the history of free press on the Boundary occurred in 2006 with the creation of the Free Press Act.  Within it was the statement that “the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Free Press”  shall not be hindered by political influence and is duty bound to be a conduit for the citizenry “to petition for redress of grievances.” Fancy words for using the EBCI Free Press to share your disagreements, and affirmations, with government in a fair and unbiased forum. 

The framers of the Free Press Act in the Cherokee Code had a vision of the One Feather (and whatever free press that might be created on the Qualla Boundary-is implied), to be an information disseminator and community forum. It was not the vision for the paper to be a “good news” or “happy news” leaflet. 

Government-owned free press is an oxymoron. The tribal newspaper is funded, in large part, by the government. Being so is a two-edged sword. While we enjoy the ability to operate in an environment that has crippled and even eliminated many print media outlets, we also must be ever vigilant concerning political and special interest influence. In the history of the Cherokee One Feather, there have been administrations, tribal management, and even legislators who have attempted to insert or successfully inserted political and personal bias in the reporting of the One Feather.

When I first encountered the One Feather as an employee of the Tribe in 2002, even I saw it as a tribal newsletter. I thought it proper that, since it is owned and operated by the government and the principal chief was the representative head of the government, the chief of the Tribe should dictate what was in the newspaper. Fortunately, over the course of a decade, and many discussions with my now reporter, I had come to realize that the One Feather was much more than a government newsletter. It may have started out that way, but based on the introduction of legislation influenced by community voters, the government itself expressed that the One Feather should not be a newsletter, but a true newspaper, one that belongs to the community and not to the governmental leadership. 

And starting with the language established in the Cherokee Code in 2006, the One Feather staff, government, and community began to craft what “free press” means in Cherokee. I can only speak to the efforts since I formally joined the One Feather staff in 2012. While here, we have attempted to craft legislation to further establish a functioning editorial board to craft policy within the organization to clarify our charge to be a free press. It is challenging. As we have said many times, we currently enjoy the most pro-free press administration and Tribal Council that I am aware of in the history of our tribe. So much so, in fact, that they are reluctant to exert any pressure on the reporting of the One Feather. 

But, it has always been my position that we are only one scandal or disagreement away from a politically adversarial relationship with government. We have had the Free Press Act for 14 years, but we have had a personnel policy for much longer than that. There has always been a conflict in the language of the personnel policy and the charge of One Feather staff, who also happen to be Tribal employees. 

In the EBCI Personnel Policy, Section 3.25 is titled “Non-public information” outlining a detailed list of what the public is not entitled to. At the end of the list it makes a broad statement about information that can be withheld from the public, including the One Feather, “any other information as determined by EBCI management.”  Our Cherokee Code includes similar language in the Public Records law (Chapter 132). Section 4.20 of the personnel policy states, “Should an employee be contacted by the press or any outside agency requesting non-public information, the request shall be given to that person’s supervisor, who will forward it through levels of authority with final approval to be made by the Principal Chief.” 

Technically, that means even my reporters would be bound to clear stories including any governmental decision or function, with me and ultimately the Chief, assuming a tribal employee took the risk of providing that information without proper clearance, before we made it public. Article 8 of the personnel policy is the Code of Ethical Conduct. Section 2 refers to confidentiality inherent in the policy and that “some departments may require an additional confidentiality agreement to be signed as a condition of employment”. 

The Tribal Employee Ethical Code of Conduct also includes this language, “All EBCI employees are expected to conduct themselves with integrity, impartiality, and professional conduct that will reflect favorably upon themselves and the EBCI.” Again, technically, this could put reporters (and the editor) in a position of conflict with tribal policy. 

The Free Press Act doesn’t say that we are to report only the news that is favorable to the EBCI. In fact, I view all factual reporting, whether it places government in a favorable light or not, as reporting with integrity, impartiality, and professionalism. To do otherwise would conflict with Chapter 75 of the Cherokee Code and with the code of ethics adopted from the Society of Professional Journalists, which we are also bound by Code to adhere to. 

A few years ago, the EBCI personnel policy was removed from tribal law, but it is still the standard by which employees are hired, evaluated, and terminated. And while the Free Press Act generally provided guidance about the conduct of the One Feather, it provided little protection for those reporting the news in an unbiased fashion to the public. So, this year we asked for and received additional protections for the newspaper to protect the personnel in the execution of duties. It is not the elected officials themselves, but the governmental mechanisms that caused concern. Tribal Council expressed agreement with that concern and voted for protections that will further the cause of free speech and freedom of information on the Boundary. Principal Chief Sneed also expressed his agreement through signing the legislation into law. 

Could the One Feather be politically influenced even with personnel protections? Absolutely, that other edge of the sword is that Tribal Council is the holder of the purse-strings of the program. A majority vote could be taken to defund the One Feather and it would disappear. The newspaper is far from self-sustaining. In the current economic environment, small local newspapers are falling by the wayside. Many of us, including the One Feather, are trying to shift advertising models to a more digital, web-based approach, which is full of its own challenges. 

Tribal Council, the Executive Office, and the One Feather have agreed on the idea and importance of Free Press, even when it comes to outside press organizations. But the continuation of this positive environment for free speech is fragile in the case of the One Feather and, indeed, all local print media. 

Margaret Sullivan recently authored a book titled “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy”. In the introduction, she addresses the negative progress for a community who reduces or loses its local free media. “It matters-immensely. As Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, put it: ‘If we don’t monitor power at the local level, there will be a massive abuse of power at the local level.’ And that’s just the beginning of the damages that’s already been done, with much more on the way. As a major PEN America study concluded in 2019: ‘As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.’ Democracy, in other words, loses its foundation.” (PEN stands for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists)

Adding to the loss of democratic foundation is the misinformation in the unregulated social media paradigm. It is amazing that it has to be said in modern culture, but not everything you see on the internet and particularly on social media is true, even if it is related to you by a “friend”. As local media shifts its focus to this digital environment, we will have to be the clearing houses for fact for the community.   

The One Feather and tribal government continue to work together to ensure your access to information and continue to provide an avenue for free thought and expression for the readership. You are in the driver’s seat as far as what the One Feather will look like in the future. And you will decide what your freedom looks like in the process. 

Finally, a quick shout out across the decades to Principal Chief Jarrett Blythe, Charlotte Sneed, Winona Digh, and Ella West, who are listed in Volume One, Number One of the Cherokee One Feather as the “committee appointed to oversee” the task of creating the Cherokee One Feather. They are also listed as the original editors. They said, “Cherokee custom, before the advent of the white man, was for the warriors to wear a single eagle feather. The feather was a symbol of the warrior’s standing within the tribe and was earned through a series of courageous acts or deeds. To be able to wear the feather, a young warrior had to be battle-tested and approved in special ceremony. In search of an acceptable name for our news communication, we were unable to uncover a more suitable title than the Cherokee One Feather, noting its important symbolism in the Cherokee past.” 

And, kudos to all the past and present editors, reporters, subscription clerks, and advertising staff who have been part of the One Feather evolution. In the war of words, you were and are the warriors for the cause of free speech.  

I heard the effort toward a Cherokee constitution mentioned in a recent Tribal Council work session. I would implore those who will be editing and presenting the constitution proposal, and those government officials who will be ultimately bringing it before the people for a vote, please put free speech and free press rights at the forefront of your governing document. Social systems succeed or collapse on those rights of freedom.