Kids, today’s lesson focuses on the First Amendment.
You know, those pesky 45 words tacked on to the end of the U.S. Constitution that provide protection for citizens to worship whomever or whatever, as they see fit and to speak as they wish; and for the press to publish what it deems fit; and for folks to have public meetings and rallies; and for all of us to tell government officials what we think they’re doing wrong (if you remember your U.S. history, you’ll recall that last one was a big deal to the dudes who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which you can read here.)
The First Amendment separates the United States from other countries, makes us a little edgy, guarantees that we are a bunch of loudmouths who, occasionally, get shit done and change the world.
To quote Ron Burgundy, it’s kind of a big deal.
I’m no expert on the First Amendment, although I did study it extensively during my years at the University of Missouri School Of Journalism (the oldest and best.) Most of my 20 years as a journalist were spent attending public meetings, interviewing public officials, asking unpopular questions and, when needed, generally pissing off both sides of an issue as I strived for impartiality.
And here’s what I always knew, from my very first journalism classes with Jane Clark and Don Ranly, Ph.D.: The Founding Fathers gave us the First Amendment as a gift and a responsibility.
One particular part of that amendment, the part protecting freedom of speech and the press, was deemed so important that it earned the press the unofficial title of the Fourth Estate, or the fourth leg of our checks-and-balances system (the other three are the executive, judicial and legislative branches.)
Just consider this from the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and the Newseum:
The First Amendment was written because at America’s inception, citizens demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms. Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.
Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change.
So I watch with horror as President-elect Donald J. Trump and his political organization continually trash and degrade practitioners of this profession, even as they use newspapers and broadcasters and digital publications for free advertising, saying outlandish things to get attention and then blasting as unfair anyone who reports on what they have said.
In my current profession as a licensed clinical social worker, I would suggest this behavior indicates possible borderline personality disorder, but I digress…
Today I happened to be in the car during the much-hyped Trump press conference, his first in 167 days. I turned on the car, and NPR came on, just in time for me to hear Trump deny a CNN reporter the right to ask a question. He made a snarky comment about the BBC.
The new president continually lobbed zingers at the reporters peppering him with questions about important issues, such as his policy priorities in the first days of his presidency and whether he was going to release his tax returns so that Americans can judge for themselves the extent of Donald J. Trump’s monetary obligations.
My jaw hung limply as I drove toward my office. Even now, more than 18 months after Trump announced his candidacy for U.S. President, I continue to be stunned when I hear how he treats journalists. And I’m frankly fearful when I hear and read regular, ordinary folks pile on the hatred.
I’m scared because I fear many people could be easily convinced that freedom of speech and press should be curtailed. There’s so much hatred.
OK, sure. Freedom of speech is messy. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes feelings get hurt. Sometimes there is cursing. Sometimes there are rumors and lies.
But as Don Ranly, Ph. D., always reminded his J300 students, a wise man (John Milton) once said (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t want to plagiarize) that when all sorts of ideas and rhetoric compete freely on a level playing field, the truth will emerge every single time. That’s the “marketplace of ideas” concept, also mentioned in John Stuart Mill’s book, On Liberty.
And what that means – this is me talking here – is that our Founding Fathers thought the citizens of the United States were intelligent enough to call “bullshit” when they see a big, fat turd (which you cannot polish, as my esteemed father likes to point out.)
So, anywho. Here’s the thing. You can hate journalists all you want and compare them to that scourge of the Earth, lawyers (jk, all my lawyer friends…just making a point.) But you do not want to live in a country where their rights are curtailed. You don’t.
Here’s a test for you. Name some countries where journalists aren’t allow to question leaders, where their stories are censored, where they are jailed for speaking truth to power. Can you think of some?
Here are a few, courtesy of the Committee to Protect Journalists. This list is from 2015:
Eritrea. North Korea. Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia. Azerbaijan. Vietnam. Iran. China. Myanmar (formerly Burma.) Cuba. These are spots where journalists routinely are jailed for reporting news that government officials determine reflects unfavorably on the government.
Hmmm. I’m down to visit some of those spots, to be sure, but sure wouldn’t want to live there.
The press is the Fourth Estate. It’s the watchdog over our three branches of government. We might not like what we hear or see from journalists, but we need that information to make informed decisions.
That’s why those guys who wrote the U.S. Constitution put press freedom in the FIRST Amendment, not the Second or Third or Eighth. It’s first. It’s important.
People have died protecting that freedom again and again since the United States began. You know this. This, at least, should be old news.