We Need to Educate our Citizens to the Importance of First Amendment Freedoms of Speech and Press
Daniel Hannan, author of “Inventing Freedom: How the Engish –speaking Peoples Made the Modern World,” identifies the founding belief of Americans that it was not just the right but the duty of Americans to resist the English King George III who was violating the “ancient constitution” established by the Magna Carta. That Charter initiated constitutional government and the concept of “freedom under law.” No longer was the “law” something declared by king or parliament but something greater, the “common inheritance of the people.”
More than that, it was enforced as a negative proscription. “ Magna Carta conceives rights in negative terms, as guarantees against state coercion. No one can put you in prison or seize your property or mistreat you other than by due process.” This enabled citizens to gain court help in stopping censorship by the government.
Mr. Hannan concludes in his article published in the Wall Street Journal, Review, May 30-31, 2015, C 1-2, that Americans, like Britons, have “ inherited their freedoms from past generations and should not look to any external agent for their perpetuation. The defense of liberty is your job and mine. It is up to us to keep intact the freedoms we inherited from our parents and to pass them on securely to our children.”
For the most part, and because there is not much education on this transcendant part of the Bill of Rights, our freedoms of speech and press are taken for granted. We leave their protection to lawyers and their clients along with the courts. But without more explanation to the public of those freedoms, more understanding and commitment, it is unlikely these freedoms will pass securely to future generations. We have all heard the common complaint directed to news programs and news papers, “There ought to be a law.” There seems a general attitude that the government should oversee the press. It is too powerful to be free. Or, I don’t have the time or interest to look at it.
A poll taken serveral years ago reported that approvimately 40% of high school seniors favored freedom of the press “but not so much freedom.”
LET THE PEOPLE SPEAK
RIVERSIDE, Conn. – The First Amendment was adopted to protect free speech and a free press from the government. Knowing what the government is doing is essential in a democracy and to people governing themselves.
Author and former Executive Vice President and General Counsel for NBC, Corydon B. Dunham, warns that some would limit those freedoms.
President Obama appointed fellow law professor Cass Sunstein as head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Prof. Sunstein has written that to meet the needs of the modern regulatory state, “free speech principles would have to be revised in some dramatic ways.” He has long called for a New Deal for the First Amendment, with government agencies having more control over speech and press as they did in the Roosevelt New Deal over property. Congress and government agencies would also deal with Constitutional issues, including speech and press, and courts would play a secondary role.
He says that when speech in the marketplace becomes unbalanced with one idea receiving more endorsement than another, the government should intervene to create balance. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan (former Chicago Law Professor with Pres. Obama) joins him but says that the First Amendment requiresthe government to revise the news report to bring about balance as if it were an ideal debate.
A government rule was tried before to provide balance and fairness in debate. A majority vote of five politically-appointed Commissioners who did not see the event or the video footage would decide on doctrine violations and order revisions of news coverage.
Investigations into news judgments and reporters coverage were burdensome and were conducted with threats of loss of license. The Federal Communications Commission itself finally vacated the rule. It found that in practice, such a rule suppressed news, chilled speech and prevented criticism of the President. It was abused for partisan purposes. The reviewing courts agreed.
Various proposals and other rules were considered under changed names as is shown in my book “Government Control of News, A Constitutional Challenge.” To require Congress and its agencies to ignore the Constitutional method of government as Prof Sunstein suggests and take over many functions of the executive, legislature, and judicial branches is to create a different and engorged committee form of national government which will be characterized at the very least by mistakes and misunderstandings to the injury of the public. The danger to our form of government can readily be seen.
Recently, this government secretly subpoenaed Associated Press reporters and others to obtain the names of their sources which of course, also send a warning to citizens not to talk to the press. This shuts down a significant part of news coverage, particularly about the government. As the head of the AP comments, pretty soon as that speech is eliminated, we will only know what the government wants us to know.
But there is an even surer and more direct way of censoring dissent. A group of over 30 publications has written to the President making public his shutting down the news they publish for his political purposes.
The Attorney General used his power to try to imprison a reporter, subpoenaed that reporter to get the name of his confidential source by accusing him of treason and for many months used the threat of jail if the reporter did not comply. The reporter was asking direct questions of the usual sort, which must be done for any appropriate news coverage. The reporter has now been released. But the government message is clear.
The event was described by that reporter as leaving the First Amendment "wrecked” and the Attorney General as the “greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
When it is important to them, this administration will not tolerate other views, other actions.
IS THE PRESS DOING ITS JOB?
When the President and his administration limit press coverage does that hurt the public?
Administrations do that to prevent embarrassment or conceal the facts they do not want made public. Is that happening in this country now? The press says it is.
The former White House spokesman, Jay Carney, says he rejects the notion that whether a reporter is successfully doing his job depends on “information he is being handed through the front door of the White House.”
Good reporters go beyond a press release for the facts. That is their job and the President is blocking them.
The Society of Professional Journalists filed a letter on behalf of 38 press organizations dated July 8, 2014 addressed to the President, accusing his administration of suppressing news for political reasons. Moreover, since the public is not informed when that happens, it does not know it is not getting the whole story.
As part of its accusation that the administration has cut off reporters’ access, the press groups charge that the door has been opened instead to lobbyists, special interests and people with wealth.
Like some foreign governments, this administration also prohibits staff contact with journalists on non-defense matters unless they are put under surveillance – an official sitting in on an interview.
All in all, with subpoenas, charges of treason and a special Department of Justice unit, the administration appears to be using intimidation to control the news. As the Associated Press chief said about secret subpoenas of AP reporters, soon the people will know only what the government wants it to know.
The press groups urge that the press push back. It should be noted that no corporate officer has spoken up for a free press when in years past they would have done so and long ago.
As for government propaganda, the president is even now blocking accredited free press photographers from some White House public events and substituting his own news versions and pictures of these events on a special arrangement for social media. This is nothing less than a controlled presidential propaganda campaign.
What is happening to our freedom of the press? In fact, United States press freedom has now been ranked 46th in the 180 countries of the world in the new annual measurement.
News about government policy, misconduct and abuse is being seriously abridged. Do we care?
The government’s objectives can also be seen in administration efforts to restore the old Fairness Doctrine (which the FCC itself and the courts revoked because it suppressed news and prevented criticism of the President) by substituting a Localism Doctrine with FCC Boards reviewing broadcast news. If it was disapproved, Boards would have to recommend loss of license.
Failing in this, the new FCC chairman tried to start investigations into broadcast and print news judgments on what news to report, what to say and why. This would have placed the new FCC chairman and his Commission majority at the heart of all news reporting. Stopped for now, their aim is clear. The writings of Professor Cass Sunstein, who was appointed by Obama to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and is a close friend of the president, also reveals their objectives. Sunstein has long urged that the press, particularly the broadcast press, be taken over by the government to achieve its social and political objectives.
The new FCC chairman, formerly the chief lobbyist for the broadband industry and then for the cable industry, is now directing a reallocation of the broadcast spectrum to Internet broadband use. This also will eliminate all free over-the-air local and national broadcast news and talk shows and some of its criticism the president has objected to. Even if some are picked up by pay cable, their independence will be reduced and curtailed by cable industry consolidation.
How much freedom must be lost before we resist?
Corydon B. Dunham, ” [former NBC network executive vice president and general counsel]
“Stanton of CBS vs Congress and the Nixon White House, with Forward by Walter Cronkite,” Praeger, 1997 and “Government Control of the News, a Constitutional Challenge” iUniverse, 2012.