“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of … the press ….” Those words, along with all others in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, are engraved in the 74 foot high marble wall on the front of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The words are simple. Enforcing those words – though not always easy or successful – is crucial to our democracy.
I recently saw a friend touring the Newseum who told me of a Russian visitor’s observation about our freedoms. The visitor said, “We have freedom of the press in Russia too. The difference in America is you remain free after you publish.” His comment is both humorous and profound.
Many countries have a Bill of Rights. Very few have mechanisms to enforce and preserve those rights. What distinguishes our system of government from most others in the world? What breathes life into our Constitutional freedoms? We are indebted to our founders for the brilliant system of checks and balances of power built into our Constitution. One of the most important checks on power is an independent and free press, “designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials” as the Supreme Court noted in Mills v. Alabama (1966).
How do the mechanics and the design of the “powerful antidote” work? Suppose Congress does make a law that abridges the freedom of the press. In the United States, the press is free to challenge the law not only in print and other media, but also in court. Once in court, an independent Judiciary is free to declare such a law unconstitutional and preserve the press’ freedom. If Congress attempts to undercut the power of the Judiciary by, for example, requiring judges to explain their decisions to a Congressional committee or face impeachment for an unpopular decision, the press can expose the attempt and bring public pressure to bear on Congress. Such critical analysis, coupled with an engaged and educated public can prevent the evisceration of an independent Judiciary (in this example) or other intrusions by one branch on another’s responsibilities. The mechanics are circular and the gears work – most of the time.
Our history is certainly full of examples of a free and independent press exposing abuses of power by governmental officials. Unfortunately, there are also examples in our history in which we have failed to enforce the freedom of press embodied in the First Amendment.
Only seven years after the ratification of the First Amendment, a Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, a tool used to suppress the contrary views of Democratic – Republican newspaper editors. For example, Matthew Lyon, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont and newspaper owner, was put in jail for referring to President John Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” It became abundantly clear that the Act was unconstitutional, and a new Congress allowed the Act to expire in 1801 but not before several egregious suppressions of a free press had occurred.
There are several other examples of suppression of the press in our history, notably during periods of war. Abolitionist newspapers were torched in the 1830’s. During the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration ordered the closure of several newspapers and the arrests of several newspaper editors who opposed the Union efforts. During World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson invoked it aggressively to suppress publications opposing to the draft, and in 1919 the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the convictions of Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer who had been convicted of violating the act when they printed leaflets urging draftees to resist the draft. Similarly, the mailing privileges of the Milwaukee Leader were revoked by the Postmaster General during World War I because he concluded that their articles were interfering with the military’s efforts. The Supreme Court upheld the Postmaster General’s actions.
In retrospect, it might appear that many of these historic suppressions of a free press could not occur in the United States today and that we have made significant progress and learned from those experiences. During times of conflict, however, our country has compromised on freedom of the press. Whether these particular examples could be repeated or not, they demonstrate that even with the protections clearly provided in our Constitution, and even with the best form of government ever devised to ensure those protections, ultimately the best defense of our Constitutional freedoms depends on an attentive, educated and engaged citizenry.
That is why the civic education efforts of Constituting America and the Freedom Forum are so vitally important to our future.
James C. Duff is the President and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum and CEO of the Newseum and the Diversity Institute. Mr. Duff is the former Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, former Counselor to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, and former Chairman of the U.S. Supreme Court Fellows Commission.
February 28, 2012