“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.”
So goes the text of the First Amendment to the Constitution, encompassing principles thought by the Founders to be so foundational to the prevention of tyranny that they insisted it be the first of the Bill of Rights to be adopted in 1791. Put simply, it guarantees to all those subject to the protection of the laws of the United States the freedoms to think, to believe, to speak, to publish and to act.
It is such a bedrock document in American governance that it tends to be memorized by school children. If only their parents could remember it!
Like the rest of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment offers a smorgasbord of enumerated rights and freedoms, and certain groups of people, owing to their own ideologies, tend to emphasize some over others. That’s why from time to time you may hear a lot about — and at high volumes — the free exercise of religion and little about the freedom of speech, or vice versa.
But just as the First Amendment as a whole is pretty worthless without the protection of the Third Amendment — “no Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law” — the freedoms it lists are as much a package deal as they are elements of a citizen’s bundle of rights. Indeed, what good is the freedom of religion without the freedom to publicize your beliefs, either in spoken or written form?
On Aug. 16, an estimated 350 newspapers published editorials striking back at what they asserted has been a campaign, inspired by President Donald Trump, against the independence of the press. When the cries of “fake news” that have done so much to undercut the people’s trust in journalists finally became old hat, the president took to calling reporters and other members of my profession “enemies of the people.” As The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in its editorial, which it splashed across the front page last week, Trump has, of late, branded all of the media as “dangerous and sick.”
I didn’t write about this topic at the time because, like the San Francisco Chronicle, which did not join the campaign, I’m not convinced that newspapers should be coordinating with each other in a public call against any government official. But lest someone mistake my silence in the face of attacks against the press as acceptance — shtikah k’hodaah, as the sages say — I don’t mind going on record now: A free press is as important to American life as the free exercise of religion, and both deserve to be protected from governmental coercion.
To be sure, the president has the First Amendment right to pretty much say whatever he wants, and the reporters and editors I work with, like their brothers and sisters across the profession, are grown-up enough to know that being criticized goes with the territory. Rare is the article that doesn’t spark the ire of someone, and human beings that we are, we are not immune from making mistakes. But we are not enemies of the president, of the Republican Party, of the United States or of democracy.
Instead of lambasting the news media, those who might agree with the president that the version of the truth promulgated in a newspaper article doesn’t comport with theirs might want to consider adding to the discussion instead of poisoning it with invective. They might want to write a letter to the editor or a blog post instead of retweeting a message in all caps.
Like the schoolchildren who learn that you don’t win an argument by being the loudest, it’s time for us as a country to respect the liberty of its citizens to hold opinions with which we disagree.
That liberty just happens to be protected the most by a vigorous free press.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]jewishexponent.com