This is the time of year when Americans celebrate the anniversary of our declaration of independence from Great Britain. It is ironic that the United Kingdom itself a few days ago found it necessary “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” By leaving the European Union the British people have reconfirmed that the longing for liberty is an eternal emotion.
Meanwhile, here in the colonies, the very document that ensured our rights as a free people has been under relentless attack. The Constitution of the United States has withstood the test of time. After the Articles of Confederation failed to provide the framework for an effective federal government delegates from the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia and in September of 1787 put their signatures to the document which, at least theoretically, remains our nation’s ultimate authority.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify theConstitution which then took effect on March 4, 1789. The document was, however, viewed as incomplete and several states insisted on the inclusion of ten amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights. Those amendments were ratified and became effective on December 15, 1791.
That the Bill of Rights was necessary is evidenced by periodic efforts throughout our nation’s history to disregard, water down, or remove them entirely. Perhaps no amendment has been so violated as the tenth which limits the power of the federal government. Congress and the president, frequently with complicity by the Supreme Court, have consistently throughout the ages infringed on this right. Today the assault continues, especially upon the second amendment governing our right to keep and bear arms. The non-existent “right” of freedom from religion has replaced the “free exercise of religion” guaranteed in the first amendment.
It is safe to assume that the founding fathers would place in the first amendment those rights that they viewed as most vital to a free people. It is here that the Constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and of the press. Now obviously there was no electronic media or internet back in 1787, but freedom of speech and of the press clearly applies to all means of communication.
A free press was instrumental in our nation’s founding. The only method of mass communication was through the printing press producing formal newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides. From Thomas Paine during the revolution to the Federalist Papers, the expression of opinion via the printed word was a vital means of exercising free speech. Throughout our history we have depended on a free press to keep government in check, such as it did during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. So vital is a free press that it is often referred to as the “fourth estate,” or fourth branch of government.
It is therefore disturbing to see candidates and elected officials from the national to the local level trampling this vital right. In just the last few weeks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has banned the Washington Post from covering his campaign events. Here in Penn’s Woods, the Democratic mayor of Harrisburg, Eric Papenfuse, has revoked the credentials of the capitol city’s newspaper the Patriot News/Penn Live. Papenfuse’s actions are especially curious in that he is the owner of a prominent bookstore, so you would think he might have some loyalty to the unfettered circulation of the printed word.
My goal here is not to defend the content of these publications – whose left-wing ideology frequently taints their reporting of the news – but to stand up for their right to do so. If elected officials, from mayors to presidents can decide who can cover the news they can also then control the news. This is not only a violation of the media’s constitutional rights, but an existential threat to our democracy and ultimately our individual liberty.
As we celebrate our freedom with fireworks and back yard barbecues let us always remember that the trampling of one right is the trampling of all rights. The loss of any one right puts us on a very slippery slope which will ultimately lead to the loss of all rights. From freedom of the press, to freedom of religion, to our right to keep and bear arms, we must fight to protect our God-given rights against those who would take them away.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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