Thursday, June 9, 2011
A Free Press
The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The third clause, “or of the press;” is one that the mass media somehow manages to move to the front of the line whenever what is published has objections attached to it. These men and women have held this clause before them like a shield claiming they have every right to destroy a person’s reputation in print or on the airwaves, because “it is news” and “the First Amendment gives us every right to print what we feel like printing”.
Does it really now?
I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the constitution and those papers concerning the development of our country. Some call the collection the Federalist Papers. Nowhere in there do I find a support of the right to libel, slander, cheat, steal or commit fraud. In fact, the correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson alludes to quite the opposite. In John Adams’ administration there was even a law spelling out the penalties for libel. However, the act Adams signed into law was based more on old English statutes and paranoia than on any constitutional restriction and it faded into extinction in 1801.
But does that expiration remove the restrictions on conscious defamation by an overzealous press? Not in any way. Again, there is no constitutional right to lie. The problem we have is that the US has developed a near schizoid personality when it comes to such acts. Consider a confidence man who uses his ability to lie convincingly to cheat an individual or business out of a fortune. Upon capture this individual claims first amendment protections because all his lies fell under the umbrella of protected speech. If a defense attorney attempted to use that tactic he or she would be laughed out of court. However, such claims have been made and successfully carried out by the defenders of an unscrupulous press.
What is the difference? Is not a lie that steals someone else’s money just as unintegral as a lie that steals a properly earned reputation? If you have to stop and think about the difference you must be a result of today’s public school system. Where the constitution is concerned there is and can be no difference and any Supreme Court Justice who believes differently is either mistaken or intentionally wrong.
On its face the constitution again adds a restriction to the power of Congress. That body is prohibited from making any law that abridges the freedom of the press to “print the truth”. Those last three words are not found in the bill of rights but they are consistent throughout the Federalist Papers and the Jefferson/Adams correspondence. Even Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin write about a free and honest press because so much of what was published under the oppressive weight of the English Crown was neither free nor honest. To make this relevant to today’s reader, the writers of the constitution did not want the American Press to be what it has become today, a propaganda arm of the government.