Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
We Americans have always valued those words which were added to our Constitution, along with many others, which define our rights. The trouble is we may have lost sight of those rights since they sometimes get in the way of things some people want to do.
Take that part about “an establishment of religion.” I have always thought that word “establishment” was intended to be seen as a verb not a noun. It does not say “the” establishment which would make it a noun but rather “an establishment.” That indicates to me that the intent of the amendment was to prevent government from interfering or preventing the building or initiating some form of religion. Government cannot stop me or anyone else from starting a “Church of the Great Here and Now” or any other religion we want.
It has been interpreted to mean that government cannot interfere with people’s right to worship as they want, or not to worship at all. In short, as long as that amendment is in effect we cannot be ruled by a theocracy, rule by religious leaders.
That part about “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” has come in for some hard time lately. Almost from the beginning of the republic leaders have had trouble with a free press.
As the country grew and developed from a few states and cities along the Atlantic coast, and political parties (which George Washington had warned us about), the role of a free press gained both popularity and importance. We soon grew to depend on the free press to keep us informed about what the government was doing, what leaders were proposing, and what policies various people were advancing.
Some early leaders, John Adams in particular, were so worried about what a free press might do if they criticized the leaders and the government, that they passed some laws regarding what might be freely written and published and what might not. They were called the “Alien and Sedition Acts.” In addition to making it harder for immigrants to become citizens, it allowed the federal government to arrest and jail anyone who wrote anything that was critical of government actions or the leaders. Despite the fact that it was clearly unconstitutional, it was passed by Congress and signed by president Adams.
Thomas Jefferson’s ideas that a population could be trusted to govern itself depended on the people being informed. Being informed means that people have to know what their leaders are doing, whether those leaders like it or not. As sometimes happens, leaders would like us not to know what they are up to. And it has been the role of a free and unencumbered press to bring us those facts.
Far from being an enemy of the people it is a free press that tells us what government and government leaders have been doing.
Whether it is township supervisors, town or city councils, a school board, state governors, state legislators or the federal Congress or president, the only way most of us have of keeping track of their actions is through some form of media, newspapers, radio and television. It is impossible for the residents of even a small town to attend council meetings, or school board meetings, much less state level legislatures or Congress, so we depend on reporters to tell us what the government is doing.
For many years I “covered” a small town council meetings and township supervisor meetings for a local newspaper until that paper’s editor decided that people were not interested in reading about those “little” governments. In all those years I sometimes agreed with what the governments were doing, I sometimes disagreed, but no matter what they did it was my job to tell people what they were doing without interjecting my opinions.
I think most reporters do the same thing. They stick to what an old time TV detective used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Do reporters have opinions? Of course they do, they are human beings, and as an old time pundit used to say, “Opinions are like noses; everyone has one.” But as I have listened to, watched and read what reporters say and write I have become more and more convinced that they mostly keep their opinions to themselves.
Politicians may not like what they say or write, but that does not mean that they are dishonest. A former boss of mine liked to say that people would always complain about what they saw as unfair news coverage based on “whose ox is being gored.” I’ll complain about news that makes me look bad but news that makes my opponent look bad is perfectly OK.
A free press has to be that, free from government interference or control. If we ever get to the point where a government, any government, controls what we see, hear and read we will be no better than the many banana republics around the world where the people see, hear and read only what the government wants them to hear and read, and that will be the end of our republic and the death of our democracy.