Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” This is true in any nation, but especially so in a democracy like ours. Our founders understood the vital importance of a free press to the health of the nation, and they understood that people had to be educated so that they might be able to discern truth from lies. Thomas Jefferson underscored this fact when he wrote: “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.”
There is a terrible threat to the freedom of the press today. One comes from the government. Well before he took office President Trump began to openly threaten the freedom of the press. Since he took office he has increased his attacks on the press as a whole and against individual journalists. Likewise his surrogates do the same and twist the very meaning of the Constitution in order to justify their attacks on it.
The fact is that such actions are the key to dictatorship. It is evident that the attacks are meant to discredit the press and to make the people suspicious of the one non-governmental source of information that our founders insisted as being absolutely vital to our freedom as Americans. Jefferson said so when he wrote: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
But the other threat to the freedom of the press comes from a populace that is unable to understand the basic workings of our form of government and who will not accept or tolerate opinions different from their own. Such is grist in the hands of leaders who despise the constitutional liberties granted to all Americans, not just their interest groups or supporters, as well the very proposition that our nation was founded upon; the proposition in the Declaration that “all men are created equal…”
But despots of all types despise a free press, and fear it. Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked that “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” This is why tyrants fear the press. A Southern critic of slavery, Hinton Helper wrote “Slavery tolerates no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech, no freedom of opinion.”
In our history there have been times when free speech and a free press were banned. One of the most notable times was during the debates about slavery during the 1830s and 1840s as the abolitionist movement began to be more vocal. They attempted to silence dissent in Congress, and beginning in 1836 the House of Representatives, led by Southern members of Congress passed a “gag rule” for its members. The “Gag Rule” “banned all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers related in any way or to any extent whatever to the subject of slavery.”
Likewise they attempted to quash any opposition to slavery in the press at the federal and state level. In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature in the South which was being sent through the mail, Senator John C. Calhoun proposed that Congress pass a law to prosecute “any postmaster who would “knowingly receive or put into the mail any pamphlet, newspaper, handbill, or any printed, written, or pictorial representation touching the subject of slavery.” Calhoun was not alone as other members of Congress as well as state legislatures worked to restrict the import of what they considered subversive and dangerous literature.
Critics of a free press often point to times where the press has failed its duty and there are times that it has. There have been partisans who have used the press to inflame opinion rather than to inform. That being said, people need to be able to discern truth from error, they need to understand their form of government and its checks and balances. The press has the responsibility of reporting and educating. The press can bear legitimate criticism when it is wrong or acts in bad faith, but the answer is not to suppress the opinions of any government critic, especially the press whose duty it is to keep the government and its leaders honest. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote: “Freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society.”
But even with the flaws of the press our founders understood it to be absolutely vital to the American experiment and to humanity. James Madison wrote: “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
Likewise, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics…derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.”
To silence the press, to restrict its access, to ban negative reporting about the government, or to attempt to delegitimize and demonize press opponents destroys a necessary pillar of a free government. Once a free press is silenced that which remains serves only as a propaganda organ for the government, incapable of telling the truth. This is why it is so important; a free press is not about the freedoms of journalists to speak, but of a people to be informed. During the height of the controversy of the publication of the Pentagon Papers which exposed the years of lies the government had been telling about the American involvement in Vietnam which the government tried to suppress, the late executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee told Dick Cavett that freedom of the press was “not the right, exclusively, of a few people who have chosen journalism as a career. That isn’t what the hell it’s about… “It’s about your right to read, your right to be informed.”
Freedom of the press must be guarded and cherished, and it is under some of the most malicious attacks today that it has ever experienced in our nation. It is something that must be defended despite its shortfalls and the various biases of different news organizations, and it is up to citizens to know their form of government and to be smart enough to recognize when news is, to use the current word, fake.