George A. Ricker ©2006
Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
The protection given freedom of the press is one of the most unique provisions in the Bill of Rights because it protects the freedom of an institution as well as that of individuals.
But the aim of that provision is clearly to secure the liberty of an entire society, not just that of the news media.
Thomas Jefferson recognized that principle when he wrote to John Jay in 1786.
Before either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights had been written, Jefferson said, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”
About one year later, Jefferson made his most famous pronouncement on the subject of freedom of the press when he wrote these words to Edward Carrington:
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
But why did Jefferson and the others responsible for the establishment of the United States of America feel so strongly about the necessity for a free press?
The government of our nation was conceived as a democratic republic. That means two things. Republican government is representative government. In a democratic republic, the representatives are elected by the people.
In our nation government derives its “just powers”—to borrow Jefferson’s phrase from the Declaration of Independence—from the consent of the governed.
But if the “consent of the governed” is to be the source of authority, then the governed must have the information necessary to make wise decisions about the people they elect and the policies they want those people to pursue. Unless the consent of the people is informed consent, the democratic basis of a free society rests on very shaky ground.
So that is why freedom of the press is important. Not to protect the rights of newspapers, reporters, radio and television stations and the like but to protect the right of the people to have the information they need to make informed decisions about their government.
And regardless of how poorly the press does its job, the principle of freedom of the press cannot be abandoned because without it, we have no real protection at all. Only an electorate that is informed can make intelligent decisions.
It is precisely when the free press is telling us what we don’t want to hear, when it is challenging government officials, exposing government misconduct and refusing to be the unofficial mouthpiece of any government agency that the press stands most in need of that constitutional protection.
A press that is the house organ for the government doesn’t need it. A press that only reports the good news, that ignores the scandals and the corruption, that is the cheerleader for every misadventure and stands silent when our liberties are threatened by the very government we created to protect them has no need of such protection.
It is only when the news media dares to speak truth to power and to reveal the truth about those who wield that power that it requires the umbrella of constitutional protection cast over it by the First Amendment.
Certainly, the importance of a free press—even though it is often overlooked by free people—is understood by despots of every stripe. Control of the media is one of the first objectives of those who would control any society.
For when you control the information on which a group of people bases its decisions, then you control, to a large extent, the nature of those decisions.
A free and independent news media is the indispensable ingredient for a free society. The constitutional protection given to a free press in the First Amendment recognizes that truth.
Yet, while we celebrate the freedom of the press, we would do well to consider the cautionary words of someone who stood at the pinnacle of the journalistic profession when he said the following:
"There is no such thing as an independent press in America at this date of the world's history. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print.
"I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.
"The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?
"We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks; they pull the strings, and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities, and our lives are all the property of other men.
"We are intellectual prostitutes."
The remarks are those of John Swinton who was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times when he made them in a toast at the annual dinner of the New York Press Club in 1953—near the end of the infamous era dominated by “McCarthyism.”
While we may not share Swinton’s bleak assessment today, his comments remind us that regardless of the words of the First Amendment, a free press can only survive in a society that demands it.
Ultimately, the protection of the freedom of the press, like all our freedoms depends upon the vigilance and determination of each of us to preserve the liberties and freedoms of all of us.
A free press can only exist in a free society. A free society cannot flourish without a free and independent press. Each is indispensable to the other.
A speech delivered at the Space Coast Freethought Association’s first-ever First Amendment Rally on July 1, 2006.