SALT LAKE CITY, June 7, 2013—Every week seems to bring a new Bill of Rights challenge for the Obama administration.
To give cover for its encroachment on the press rights of James Rosen, Fox News, and the Associated Press, the Obama administration has called for a law to protect members of the media.
Even if Obama is suddenly an advocate of a vigorous press, a so-called media shield law misses the point of the first amendment entirely—that the freedom to speak and print freely is an individual, not a collective, right.
A recent Washington Times editorial pointed out the historical basis for the First Amendment, adding that the proposed media shield law wouldn’t protect small-outfit journalists, like bloggers.
As is the case with many of our natural rights, politicians, and liberal Democrats in particular, want the ability to deem who gets special protection. They want to legislate classes of citizens. Instead of respecting the right of all citizens to print what they want, Obama wants to decide who belongs to the media. It’s a safe bet that if you have ever been affiliated with a Tea Party organization, you probably won’t qualify.
But liberty in the press is the essence of a self-governing people. In 1765 John Adams wrote in his Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law that “more importan[t] to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country” was the ability of the great masses of people to access information; that “none of the means of information are more sacred, or have been cherished with more tenderness and care by the settlers of America, than the press.”
Who composed this all important institution, the press? Surely it was large conglomerate media interests, with the resources to defend itself in court, and more importantly, the means to broadcast the ruling class’s ideology far and wide, in prime time, no?
Of course not. In the revolutionary generation, the press referred to the scores of family, independent, and sole-proprietary newspapers and printing shops scattered about the colonies. Most had circulations in the hundreds.
For Adams the press was not an institution or an estate, but a vehicle for speech, and an important vehicle especially for the lower classes to receive political information.
Another influential revolutionary document, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, explicitly recognized, just prior to independence, “that the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
The Declaration was the first enactment by a legislature expressly protecting press liberty.
Our nation’s most influential, if not its most famous, printer was Benjamin Franklin, who operated a press that never employed more than a handful of typesetters.
On one hand, the president has sounded fairly enamored of press shield laws while systematically violating their spirit. He has said in recent weeks that “I think now’s the time for us to go ahead and revisit that legislation.”
The way he and his team construe the press, it wouldn’t include Benjamin Franklin or any of the other revolutionaries who agitated against their government in 18th-century rags.
Freedom of the press, like its First Amendment companions free speech and freedom to worship, is designed to protect the individual from prior restraint and reprisal by the state.
Obama’s Department of Justice has routinely sought to do both, on large media corporations and individuals.
They simply don’t understand what a free press is.
Rich is a teacher and a soldier. In addition to writing the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Washington Times Communities, he is the author of Nine Weeks: A Teacher’s Education in Army Basic Training; Tunnel Club; and Not Another Boring Textbook: A High School Students’ Guide to their Inner Conservative.
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