Tag Archives: First Amendment

High expectations+vigilance will preserve 1st Amendment rights

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected **

Though of disputed origin, the quote reflects my deep faith in the guiding premise of the First Amendment that affirms the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy.   The digital age presents a mighty challenge to both – in terms of role, economics, technology, critical thinking and attitudes. As the role and power of a free press is tested at this hour it behooves those who depend on the free flow of information and ideas to exercise what a wise mentor described as “perceptive paranoia”.

Journalists have spoken, perhaps most adamantly in the letter that a host of professional journalism associations have sent to the President-Elect. Because the thrust of their letter is press access to the Executive Branch, the writers note that “this isn’t about access for the press itself; it’s about access for Americans in diverse communities across the country.” To read the full text of that letter click here: http://www.poynter.org/2016/journalism-organizations-call-on-trump-to-uphold-traditions-of-white-house-coverage/439519/

Suffice to say, the press, a bit mollified by recent miscalculations, is roiled up and divided in their prognostications of what’s to come. In yesterday’s WaPo David Drezner describes the contrast between Obama’s “no drama” mantra, the “tight-lipped” approach of both Bush administrations, and that, which is to come.  Drezner concludes that, though “many will fret that this is just the beginning of an administration that will test the constraints of the First Amendment…if the past week suggests anything, it is that the Trump team will need the press just as much as it claims to loathe it.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/the-outsized-role-of-the-press-in-the-trump-administration/?utm_term=.42f3180cd910

Today the forces of information and communication technology are one and the same, the reality of which is not lost on Steve Bannon who has long worked off the grid to share information/misinformation that has clearly shaped and reinforced public opinion and voter behavior.

Lip service to a free press will not suffice today. Nor will passive inaction assure that the First Amendment remains as the core tenet of the democracy, given the prominence imbued by the founding fathers as first among the inalienable rights afforded citizens of the new nation.

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.

That’s the story of my lofty expectations for a free press and an informed citizenry. As always, it is up to the body politic to maintain constant vigilance, even as political reality, coupled with communication and information technology, challenge our assumptions about how and why we know what we know about our government.

** The origin of the adage is a story in itself:  http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004100.html *

 

James Madison, Father of the First Amendment

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the national take part.

 

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a face or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever government ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

 

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

 

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learning, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,”  an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

 

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

 

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Friday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that is works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.