First freedom protects more than just press

Thursday, June 15, 2000

I have an interior-decorating suggestion for America’s newsrooms.

Displayed high above the desks of reporters, writers, editors and news
directors should be a large sign (preferably in neon) proclaiming,
“Honor the First Amendment.”

After all, there’s a real movement nationwide to post words to live by.
(See the Ten Commandments.) And there’s little question that most
journalists would benefit from a daily reminder of our most fundamental freedoms.

That came to mind during a recent visit with a group of newspaper staff
trainers at The Freedom Forum’s Pacific Coast Center in San Francisco.
The participants were newspaper professionals who are responsible for
developing the skills of reporters and editors. They were a terrific
group — lively, thoughtful and committed.

But the give-and-take with these journalists did reinforce a concern for
me. Few newsrooms take the opportunity to tap into the ideals of the
First Amendment in a way that bolsters the quality and spirit of

Good newsrooms invest significant time and resources in developing more
sophisticated reporting and editing but rarely give thought to the
powerful principles that make that writing and editing possible.

As a newspaper editor and lawyer, I made it a point occasionally to
conduct what I thought were First Amendment seminars for my staff. I
would spend an hour or two each year talking about libel law,
defamation, privacy and freedom of information issues and congratulate
myself on putting my law degree to use.

Of course, I was kidding myself. I wasn’t conducting First Amendment
seminars at all. I was conducting freedom of the press seminars.
The First Amendment embodies five freedoms — not just freedom of the
press. It guarantees our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and our
right to both assemble and petition the government for change.

Viewed solely from the narrow aspect of press freedom, the First
Amendment is just one more excuse to publish what we wanted to publish
in the first place.

But viewed in its entirety, the First Amendment is nothing less than the
cornerstone of our democracy.

So how can the nation’s news media truly honor the First Amendment? Some suggestions:

  • By reporting fully and fairly. It’s true that the First Amendment
    gives us rights, not responsibilities. But if we truly cherish those
    rights, we should exercise them with passion, professionalism and good
    faith. Failure to do so only reinforces the public’s discontent with the
    free press and encourages legislators’ worst impulses.
  • By remembering that the right to a free press came from the original
    Americans — citizens of a new nation who demanded this freedom so that
    someone would keep an eye on government. Being a watchdog is not a job;
    it’s a mission.
  • By aggressively reporting news stories on First Amendment topics. I’ve
    heard from editors who believe that writing about the First Amendment is
    “inside baseball.” This stems from a misplaced belief that the press has
    a conflict of interest in reporting about First Amendment issues.

    Nonsense. The First Amendment belongs to all Americans, not just the
    press. The right to express oneself and the right to embrace one’s own
    faith are as critical to the public welfare as clean air, clean water
    and good public education. As I’ve heard Charles Overby, chairman and
    chief executive officer of The Freedom Forum, point out, “The First
    Amendment is not a special interest.”

  • By taking a stand. Editorial writers do a good job of defending a free
    press and seeking freedom of information, but it’s important to remember
    that all freedom of expression needs to be protected. Since the
    shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, young people have
    suffered a repressive and often irrational backlash from some school
    administrators. That’s a critical place for newspapers to weigh in. If
    we care about the First Amendment, we need to protect it on all fronts.
    Of course, one of the challenges of instilling an ongoing, active
    respect for the First Amendment in newsrooms is that it just seems so
    dull and corny when viewed in the abstract.

  • Too many of us have slogged through too many tedious history texts to
    muster much enthusiasm for historical figures. Get pumped up about the
    values of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison? Not likely.

    Somehow, the news industry needs to shake off that mindset. From time to
    time, news organizations need to pause long enough to ask, “Who are we
    serving? What do we believe in? Are there principles behind the profits?”

    If the press doesn’t connect with the ideas of the nation’s Founding
    Fathers, it becomes just another for-profit enterprise, no more noble
    and no more valuable than any other commercial enterprise.

    Good journalists do their jobs with a real understanding of their role
    in a free society.

    Unless newsrooms understand the origin and evolution of our First
    Amendment rights, they’re not in a good position to defend our most
    fundamental freedoms. And if they don’t, who will?

    For more information
    The following Freedom Forum publications are available. Contact Paul Cain at Please indicate the publication number.

    • “The First Amendment: The Amendment That Keeps Us Free,”
    • “State of the First Amendment,” #99-FO1
    • 2000 First Amendment calendar, #99-W07

    • Other publications available in bookstores or libraries:

    • “James Madison on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Robert J.
      Morgan, published by the Greenwood Publishing Group, 1988
    • “First Amendment Law in a Nutshell,” Jerome A. Barron and C. Thomas
      Dienes, published by the West Group, 2000
    • “Origins of the Bill of Rights,” Leonard W. Levy, published by Yale
      University Press, 1999