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Free and unfettered press: What it means to our liberties

 

 

How many times have you felt that somebody with whom you disagree or somebody you just don’t like should be silenced? That they should not be allowed to say those things; that they have no right to say those things? That they don’t think the way I do?

I’m sure you’ve had similar thoughts if you’ll be honest with yourself. Sometimes I find myself thinking about those who say and do things with which I find disturbing: If you don’t like the status quo, then leave the country. But, then, I realize that they have just as much right as I do to say and do anything, as long as it’s within the bounds of the law? And what gives any of us that right? It’s called the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

The emphasis there is “NO LAW.” That means that the government cannot intervene. The government cannot deny your right to say or what you think; it cannot deny the press its right to print what it wants or the broadcast media to say and report what it wants. This all may rankle some of the public, especially those who are on the other side of the political spectrum from the party in power. Or it often rankles politicians, who usually have a great disregard for the press.

The press often is criticized for being too vocal about press freedom. Some of those critics accuse the press of being selfish, of caring only for its own skin, of abusing freedom of the press, and that the press deserves what it has coming – whatever that is. I would agree that some segments of the media have abused their responsibility. But, unless they have violated the laws of libel, they have that right to be irresponsible.

Freedom of the press is not simply a protection of itself. The First Amendment and its guaranteed freedoms, including freedom of the press and of speech, were written to protect the people from a suppressive government. It not only protects the media from government supervision, it protects the people from having their news supervised by government.

I wonder sometimes if a negative public realizes what a free and unfettered press mean to our liberties and freedom of expression. Do we want to read or hear the news as it is, or do we object to that news that is not in line with our preconceived notion of what it should be?

There are some who say the press should be more responsible. Who would determine that? How would it be determined? Some say the press should clean up its own house. Who and how would that be determined? And then there are a few who say the press should be licensed. By whom? How is it possible to license the press under the First Amendment? Such licensing presumes government intervention. Can you imagine the reaction of Democrats receiving supervised news from a Republican controlled government? How about the reverse? Could Republicans accept supervised news from a Democratic controlled government?

Responsibility! Each individual editor, publisher, owner of a newspaper or television station must be responsible to his or her own conscience and to their readers and listeners for what kind of news they offer. A government-controlled press is a feature of a totalitarian, dictatorial regime. And, it is truly tragic that there are several of those around our world. I really can’t believe that there are those who favor government control of the press here in the United States; if they really stop and think about the consequences.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech go hand in hand. I believe that most – but certainly not all – newspapers and television outlets across the country try to be fair and responsible in their reporting and news coverage. Editorial comment is something entirely different. An editorial is meant to be opinionated¸ often taking a specific side on a political issue or siding with a politician. That’s the nature of an editorial. It’s meant to “stimulate” your thinking.

The late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “One is really devoted to freedom of speech when he is willing to tolerate the expression of ideas which he hates.”

Our freedoms are worth preserving As the late Supreme Court Justice William Douglas said: What one believes is and should be beyond the reach of government.

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Ron Kenney was a reporter and editor for the former Daily Times-Advocate from 1952 to 1979 and was a copy editor on the pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1985 to 1997.


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