Even the choir needs preaching on First Amendment

Thursday, October 30, 1997

By Beverly Kees

• Full text of McMasters’ speech

SAN FRANCISCO Wherever local, state or national
government bodies meet, “elected officials rise on behalf of a censor-minded
citizenry and proclaim, ‘I believe in the First Amendment but … .’ Then
follows yet another proposal to regulate our speech in order to elevate our lives,”
Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters said Sept. 26 at the Pacific
Coast Center.

McMasters opened the third annual California First
Amendment Assembly by condemning constant efforts to restrict or smother liberties.

Even the choir needs preaching, he said to a roomful of choir members.
“I’m appalled at how we have carved our community into free-speech ghettoes
– press goes one way, religion another, speech yet another. You would be surprised at
how our interests coincide.”

He read a list of challenges to all five parts of the First Amendment,
from Internet censorship to library censorship to teaching Creationism in the schools to
tearing pages out of a book of photos. (Text of the speech below.) He urged a nationwide
education campaign on the First Amendment’s five freedoms.

During the question session, he was asked by Rosie Daswani, a City
College of San Francisco student, if the press doesn’t go too far in intrusive
coverage. McMasters said it sometimes does, but added: “If you think the press is bad
today, go back and look at the press in the time of Thomas Jefferson, when politicians
traditionally hired their own editors to tout their causes; when people like Mr. Jefferson
were the targets of scurrilous rumor-mongering and outright lies by the opposition press.
Even as late as 1824 when Andrew Jackson announced his candidacy for president, more than
500 newspapers sprung up to tout his candidacy. So-called objective, non-partisan,
independent press is really a fairly modern creature. The United States especially is
blessed to have the most sophisticated, the most sensitive and, I think, the most
effective press that it’s ever been.

“Having said that, I understand completely the anger that people
feel when journalists cross the line. I’m not quite sure what to do about that.
You’ve got this very careful dance going on between journalists and the celebrities
they are covering. I can’t get over the irony from those interviews a couple of days
after Princess Diana’s death, in London. A TV camera was focusing on an irate
Londoner shaking his fist in a fury at the press, and over his shoulder you could see the
tabloid racks all sold out. The Sun alone, one of dozens of tabloids in England,
was selling four million copies a day.”

McMasters said the supply will always be there to meet the demand.
“I’m not proud of that, but I can’t say we need laws against it, for
several reasons, here in the United States. … A law restricting the ability of the
press to cover public figures is number one, unnecessary, number two, unworkable, and
number three, unconstitutional.”

McMasters gently chided fellow journalists for protecting only the free
press “and that’s as far as it goes. You can see it in the language they adopt
and the way they cover issues. Mainstream journalism today is responsible for some
egregious incidents of what I call cyberpanic. My alma mater, USA Today, invented
the term ‘Internet addiction’ not long ago, whatever that is. Here is San
Francisco, when the Supreme Court ruled against the communications decency act, the
headline in the Chronicle was ‘Net Porn Law Shot Down.’ Others said smut.
I think there is more going on there than just short words for a headline. I think there
is truly a way of looking at the world that gets in stride with what they feel is public
sentiment and is totally out of step with the First Amendment franchise.

“When I’m asked by the media what the number one First
Amendment problem is that I see today, I say it is what’s going on in the public
libraries. They are the target of stealth candidacies for library boards, people with an
agenda to change the way we distribute knowledge in this country. They are the first line
of attack for ridding libraries of material that have to do with indecency, with gay and
lesbian issues, with AIDS. [Libraries] are the first ones attacked when it comes to the
Internet. What a marvelous, marvelous tool the World Wide Web could be in a library, that
greatly expands the world of knowledge and brings it to the feet of those who come there.
Yet people are wanting to put filters on.”