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.
This is the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the one that comes before the second amendment we hear so much about. Like all 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, it is composed of a single sentence, and it is one of the most extraordinary sentences I have ever read, prohibiting the federal government from regulating the private beliefs of its people. The rights may seem unrelated, but to me those 45 words follow a simple and straight line: the government may not tell me what to believe; it may not interfere with how I express my beliefs; and it may not stop me from joining peaceably with other people to protest government activities which I think threaten those beliefs. It protects my thoughts, my voice and my body. This is the foundation of our democracy. If there is an “American Exceptionalism,” it is embodied in the first amendment.
The fact that “the press” is in there is not accidental, and yet so often these days we treat it as a remote, often adversarial, body, rather than the extension of our speech that the framers intended.
The press is under fire in a lot of places: In Turkey, for example, the government has jailed 120 journalists since July, closed 150 news organizations, and pressed for deep-pocketed loyalists to buy what’s left. Things aren’t so dire in this country, but the threats to a free press are pervasive. Some of them are self-inflicted. Some are economic, as revenues at traditional news outlets continue to decline. Some stem from the digital revolution (almost two-thirds of Americans get all or some of their news from social media). Some are because the press has become politicians’ favorite whipping boy.
This is dangerous, and I have reached out to people I know in the news business to see if we can talk about what the issues are and ways we might address them. I will be writing about this in future posts, and I hope you will join the conversation in the weeks and months ahead.