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.
— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
There is no more precious freedom we have than that of free expression. The first amendment to the constitution isn’t telling you what you can do, it is telling the government what they can’t do. The founding fathers believed that the rights in the first amendment were inherent or understood to be true. Those 45 words, about twice as long as a standard tweet, were written to make sure they could not be taken from you.
The first amendment guarantees five rights.
- Freedom from a state run religion
- Freedom to practice a religion of your choosing or not to practice at all.
- Freedom of expression. You are free to express yourself (free speech) wherever you choose, whenever you choose. Freedom of the press. The government may not control the news you get. Free press applies to print, broadcast and the internet.
- Freedom to peaceably assemble. If you want to have a meeting or stand on a corner and pass out leaflets that is your right. You can march, demonstrate or preach from a soapbox and the government can’t stop you.
- Petition the government for a redress of grievances. This is grass roots lobbying. You can circulate petitions, visit your elected representatives or hold demonstrations aimed at causing change.
Now, there are some things you cannot do, but the list is relatively short, for example. You cannot maliciously defame someone, you cannot spread hateful talk and you can’t yell, “Fire” in a crowded theater (unless there is one).
Free expression is not a principle common to most countries. A recent Freedom House survey found that only 16 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with a free press. And many of them don’t have the broad protection our first amendment offers. Many governments restrict the information their people can get by disallowing foreign news programs, the internet, publications and often even discussions. Even our friends in England, do not have the protection that Americans do. The English have no document like our First Amendment.
While there are five guarantees in the amendment, I’m going to focus on just one today, the guarantee of a free press.
It is a given throughout history that Governments that do business under the watchful eye of the media are likely to go about their business more honestly than they would otherwise. The news media, also known as the fourth estate, keeps tabs on the three branches of government. Without that scrutiny or the threat of it, we would not have a clue as to what was happening with our tax dollars or what elected representatives were doing.
Even if you don’t like the news media and think they are biased, unfair and inaccurate it is still in your best interests to support their continued existence because without them we become just another dictatorship where the people are kept in the dark about everything.
Almost everyone agrees that a free press is necessary but there is always a “but.” For example, the norm in this country is to be a Democrat or a Republican and either a Christian or Jew. Few will argue that they should be restricted. But, when we deviate from the norm and allow a communist to speak freely, the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally, and the Islamic faith to establish itself that’s when many people will make exceptions to the guarantees of the First Amendment. And that’s when “Congress shall make no law,” comes in. You either have free expression or you don’t. We must protect “Congress shall make no law” with all of our energy even when to do so hurts a little. One of the very special things about the first amendment is it balances itself. It says we have a right to free speech and a free press and often the free speech is critical of the free press, and that’s as it should be.
Having a free press means we have to take the bad with the good, and sometimes that’s hard. But even if on occasion we must suffer their criticism, we are still better off for it. Often, the media in their competitive arena will balance a story by offering several perspectives on the same issue. To be fair, if you are going to judge the news media, then it must be done on a macro basis rather than looking at one or two members and concluding they are all that way.
The first amendment is a clear, bold and loud restriction on Government power and it must be protected at all costs. Without freedom of expression, we have no freedom at all. Thomas Jefferson said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Journalism is an inexact business because it depends entirely on what other people, who have no obligation to be honest, tell the reporter. There is a huge difference between a journalistic inquiry and testimony in a court of law. In the courtroom there are penalties for lying, you must appear in court if ordered to do so and you are required to answer the questions. In a news interview the subject appears voluntarily, can lie if he or she wants to and can refuse to answer questions. The entire news gathering process depends on people volunteering honest information.
The late and great Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, David Broder described a newspaper this way;
“… a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours – distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias – by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour. If we labeled the product accurately, then we could immediately add: ‘But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow, with a corrected and updated version.”
If you’d like to know more about the first amendment and the constitution this link offers some excellent information. https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-i
And from where I sit, that’s the truth