When times were good, the press liked to puff itself up and speak grandly of the people’s right to know—language that reconfigures the First Amendment guarantee of a free press to cast the lordly press as the humble servant of its readers. But a right to know what? Whatever we feel like telling you, most journalists believed. It’s our ball and our game.

It might be time for journalists to think again.

An Italian judge just ruled not only that the people have a legal right to know but that criminal penalties can be imposed when the people don’t. That’s the media message I take from the recent convictions of six Italian seismologists and a government official for failing to keep the people in the loop. More than 300 lives were lost on April 6, 2009, when during the night an earthquake battered the town of L’Aquila, in the foothills of the earthquake-prone Appenine mountains in central Italy. Not for failure to prevent the catastrophe but for failure to inform the public of the possibility it would happen, the defendants were indicted for multiple manslaughter.