I spent 4 hours today overheating at an annual village fair helping out at a First Amendment booth. Besides literature to hand out, the main attraction was thought bubbles that people could fill in wth whatever thoughts or ideas they wanted to share – no assigned topics, no judgements – and the completed bubbles were hung up around the booth. The plan, as I understand it, is to display the thoughts at a local library in the near future. Some people, unsurprisingling, just walked on by, some actively scoffed, and there were political commenters from all views, but many used the opportunity to offer words of hope, empowerment, peace. The messages, including the political ones, were overwhelmingly positive, and the contributors came in all ages and genders. It was a good thing, and I hope that the importance of the freedom of speech was reinforced in a fun way,
But, of course, the First Amendment to the US Consitution covers a bit more than free speech. It also covers freedoms of religion, and freedom of the press, and the right to sue the government for the redress of grievances.
But, it is freedom of the press that often, especially recently, needs to be reinforced.
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.” — Albert Camus
Freedom of the press was explicitly guaranteed by our founders. And along with it the right of free expression and the right to dissent. This was such a strong foundational principle that it was codified within the first 10 amendments to our constitution – what we refer to as the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, adopted in 1791, states:
“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 press is so critical to the functioning of our Democratic Republic, that it is frequently referred to as the 4th Estate, or 4th branch of government. It is an important piece in the checks and balances that were built into our system. In the words of Harry S Truman, 33rd President of the United States:
“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
I’d like to hope that we haven’t begun following that path, but I fear that we may have. It is up to all of us to help make sure that we stay on the path of freedom and openness by paying attention and speaking out (and writing).