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VIEWPOINT: Constitution protects a free press


One of the most frightening images of the recent Presidential election was a young man at a political rally in Minneapolis selling T-shirts that read "Rope- Tree- Journalist- Some Assembly Required." It is obvious he either has no knowledge of history or doesn't care about it. History teaches us that the first targets of a military coup, whether in Africa or South America, are the radio and television stations, and the newspapers. Those seeking to overthrow a government seek to control the dissemination of the truth to the masses.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in part: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..."

One of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions about freedom of the press is Near v. Minnesota (1931) which is summarized as follows:

Minnesota had a law subjecting newspapers to official approval before publication. Publishers had to show "good motives and justifiable ends" for what they were about to print. If they could not, the paper could be censored in advance. Additionally, it was a crime to publish "obscene, lewd, and lascivious" or "malicious, scandalous and defamatory" materials.

Jay Near published a "scandal sheet" in 1920s Minneapolis. This paper was devoted to sensational news and "exposé" reports on corruption. Near regularly criticized elected officials and accused them of dishonesty. He asserted that Jews were "practically ruling" the city, that the chief of police was taking bribes, and that the governor was incompetent. Near was eventually stopped from publishing his newspaper in 1925 on the basis of the Minnesota law.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that prior restraint on publication (censoring newspapers in advance) in Minnesota was the "essence of censorship" and the heart of what the First Amendment was designed to prevent. Even in cases where printed statements could be punished after the fact (libelous statements, for example), neither federal nor state governments could stop the publication of materials in advance. The Court cautioned that prior restraint may be constitutional during wartime: "No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops."

In a society with a free press, journalists who have the power to shape public opinion may test citizens' commitment to the First Amendment. A free press puts the responsibility on the citizen to determine what is accurate, what is worth reading, and what is worth watching.

[Copyright, Bill of Rights Institute 2016]

Here are a few quotes about a free press from three of the Founding Fathers and others:

• "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost ..." — Thomas Jefferson

• "No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." — Thomas Jefferson

• "The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments." — George Mason, sometimes called "Father of the Bill of Rights"

• "Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech." — Benjamin Franklin

• "Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose." — George Orwell

• "We are, heart and soul, friends to the freedom of the press... it is a precious pest, and a necessary mischief, and there would be no liberty without it." — Fisher Ames, elected to first U.S. Congress

If you value your freedom to read this article and this newspaper, please don't take that freedom for granted. Those in positions of power may have designs upon that freedom, particularly if criticism for their ruling is sharply focused and truthful. If we are not vigilant, our precious freedoms can be lost in the interest of security. These freedoms have survived for more than 200 years precisely because of the checks and balances of our three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial; and the freedom of the press.

Remember, it's in your court.

Steve Halsey is chambered in Wright County District Court in Buffalo. Halsey is the host of "The District Court Show" on local cable TV public access channels throughout the 10th Judicial District. Excerpts can be viewed at districtcourtshow. Halsey may also be heard on "Legal Happenings" on KRWC 1360 AM (Buffalo) at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays.