This last week, the attorney general said that he would consider prosecuting any journalist or newspaper that published classified information that had been leaked. “There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility,” he said.
Freedom of the press is in the 1st Amendment because history taught America’s founders its importance. They remembered that colonial printers had been licensed, but licenses could be revoked and printers imprisoned (Ben Franklin’s older brother James was once imprisoned for a month). Those dedicated to liberty rejected British fears that “Great inconvenience may arise by the liberty of printing” and Virginia Governor William Berkeley’s 1671 view that “I thank God that there are no free schools nor printing…learning has brought disobedience and heresy, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.”
Unfortunately, current press freedoms fall short of that envisioned by our founders. The first worldwide press freedom index in 2002 ranked America only 17th in the world, “mainly because of the number of journalists arrested or imprisoned there…often because they refuse to reveal their sources in court.” Judith Miller of the New York Times, jailed in 2005 for refusing to disclose a source, is the most famous illustration, but others, such as San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams could face similar fates. The current pressures to limit the freedom of the press justify recalling just how crucial it was to our founders. Thomas Jefferson asserted that “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” John Adams argued that “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people…of the characters and conduct of their rulers,” which is why Samuel Adams found that “there is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so terrible to tyrants…as a free press.”
Fisher Ames wrote that “freedom of the press…is a precocious pest, and a necessary mischief, and there would be no liberty without it.” George Mason said that “The freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” stated it most powerfully, when he wrote, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.”
Unfortunately, our understanding of the importance of freedom of expression has eroded since America’s founders gave them pride of place in the Bill of Rights. They would be unable to reconcile current restrictions, much less proposals for further ones, with their belief in liberty or our founding documents. In fact, restrictions are closer to the Soviet ideal than ours. In Lenin’s words:
“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government…allow itself to be criticized? I would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?”
Lenin was right: Ideas are ultimately more fatal than guns. But that is why Americans must defend the freedom of the press. As Jefferson said, “To preserve the freedom of the human mind…and freedom of the press, every spirit should be willing to devote itself…for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”
America weathered the unconstitutional Sedition Act of 1798 because so many citizens recognized it as an affront to liberty. But it is not clear that Americans’ current dedication to liberty is as great. Yet John F. Kennedy’s recognition that “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people” is as true today as ever. And, as Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once put it, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”