The press: license and liberty

THE new US-Canadian free-trade pact has been hailed as a victory for more and freer trade. But many in both countries are worried about a provision that could be construed as an effort to license journalists. One of the premises of the accord is that in an era of information-intensive industry, free trade in goods is not enough; free movement of people, particularly professionals, is needed, too.

Journalists like to be thought of as ``professionals''; the question is defining and credentialing them. Unlike doctors or lawyers - or for that matter, plumbers or electricians - journalists don't need a license to practice, and so they don't have nice official certificates to wave before immigration officials at the airport.

And so the trade pact defines professional journalists as having a baccalaureate degree and three years' experience. It's not at all clear that these requirements make sense; good work is done by those with less formal education and less, or at least different, experience. More to the point, the idea of any government standards as to who should be considered a journalist is deeply troubling.

The bachelor's-plus-three-years standard turns out to be borrowed from a provision in the American immigration regulations in use for years. US union officials were concerned that without such a standard, Canadians claiming to be journalists would cross the border to take industrial jobs away from Americans.

Most of the time, of course, the United States strongly resists efforts to control the press. The American pullout from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization came partly in response to UNESCO's efforts for a ``new information order.''

That free-press tradition should be honored by the excision from the trade pact of such a ``standard'' for journalists.

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