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Editorial A united defense of the First Amendment

November 7, 2018

To quote one of the most famous Republicans of the modern age, “Tear down this wall.”

The wall in question does not divide nations. This one seeks to stifle the free press, and it has become higher in the United States in recent months.

During the fevered final hours of the Connecticut gubernatorial race on Election Night, GOP candidate Bob Stefanowski’s camp tried to stop Hearst Connecticut Group reporter Kaitlyn Krasselt and photographer Peter Hvizdak from entering the Rocky Hill ballroom where Stefanowski and other Republicans were awaiting results.

They were told by members of Stefanowski’s campaign staff that Hearst journalists were not welcome, citing objections to coverage.

It’s not the first collision Connecticut journalists have had with the campaign. Stefanowski has resisted meetings with editorial boards as well as reporters’ queries on policy as well as his background. Elected officials need to have a thick skin.

Journalists from the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Mirror, CT News Junkie, WNPR and WSHU jumped to our defense in Rocky Hill, and the showdown went viral.

Hartford Courant Publisher and Editor Andrew Julien, who was poised to pull his staff from the scene, tweeted that the newspaper “stands by its colleagues.”

Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists President Bruno Matarazzo released a statement that “Connecticut’s constitution reinforces the First Amendment right to a free press, and we would expect any candidate looking to oversee the executive branch to respect that.”

Connecticut GOP Chairman J.R. Romano must have experienced déjà vu when he learned of the standoff. Two years ago, he denied access to a former Hearst reporter at the party’s state convention. He used that incident to try to raise money, instead drawing heat from multiple outlets.

Under pressure, Republicans opted to credential our journalists.

Politicians don’t get to elect who covers them, despite a set of phantom rules quoted from the Donald Trump Playbook.

Elections can become emotional — particularly for novice candidates — and bad decisions can be made. But a state’s highest elected official needs to recognize the vital role of the media within a democracy, and have the fortitude to welcome feedback that doesn’t come from acolytes. It will come from opinion columnists and editorial writers, but it will mostly come from constituents.

It’s our job to ensure such voices have a public forum.

Like Tom Foley four years ago, Stefanowski will likely vanish from the political scene in the wake of Ned Lamont’s narrow victory Wednesday morning.

That won’t change our mission. We must hold all parties accountable, especially with Democrats tipping the scales in Hartford squarely in their favor. One-party rule demands scrutiny.

Competing news outlets standing together Tuesday for that ideal “was a proud moment for the Connecticut journalism community,” said Matt DeRienzo, vice president of news and digital content for Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers.

It also was a reminder that while a wall can block out people, it also holds the potential to hush those within. On this Election Day, we were grateful for peers who formed a wall of their own to shield the First Amendment.

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