Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Founding Fathers & Freedom of the Press

It may be remembered from last week's post that George Washington considered Freedom of Speech so important that without it, he feared Americans would be rendered "dumb and silent."  I'm not sure whether he used the term "dumb" to mean 'without speech' or 'stupid.'  Either way, it was clear that Washington regarded freedom of speech very highly.

There was a great debate among our Founding Fathers regarding the need for a Bill of Rights.  Some felt there was no need, since what wasn't expressly given away by citizens to the government was a freedom they retained.  Others felt that a Bill of Rights was essential to protect particular freedoms by enumerating them.  Still others questioned how it would be possible to name every possible freedom meant to be retained by citizens.  Some arguments were a matter of political practicality--opposition to adding a Bill of Rights was motivated by the goal of getting the Constitution ratified as promptly as possible, without getting tangled up in debates over a Bill of Rights. Obviously, the Constitution was ratified and a Bill of Rights was added, which courts have construed to protect our freedoms.

Representative Journals of the United States, 1885; Newspapers and their editors shown:  1st Row:  The Union and Adviser, Wm Purcell; The omaha Daily Bee, Edward Rosewater; The Boston Daily Globe, Chs. H. Taylor; Boston Morning Journal, Wm Warland Clapp; The Kansas City Times, Morrison Mumford; The Pittsburg Diispatch, Eugene M. O'Neill.  2nd Row:  Albany Evening Journal, John A. Sleicher; The Milwaukee Sentinel, Horace Rublee; The Philadelphia Record, Wm M. Singerly; The New York Times, Geo. Jones; The Philadelphia Press, Chs. Emory Smith; The Daily Inter Ocean, Wm Penn Nixon; The news & Courier, Francis Warington Dawson.  3rd Row:  Buffalo Express, James Newson Smith; The Daily Pioneer Press, Jos. A. Wheelock; The Atlanta Constitution, Henry W. Grady and Evan Howell; San Francisco Chronicle, Michael H. de Young; The Washington Post, Stilson Hitchins.  (Enlarge by clicking on the image.)
Freedom of the Press was one of those freedoms about which concerns were raised as ratification of the Constitution was debated.  Some states had already included freedom of the press in their state constitutions.  In #84 of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton addressed concerns about the need for expressly protecting freedom of the press.  He did not disagree with the importance of a free press but rather based his argument on the impractically of drafting such protection.  "What is the liberty of the press?" he asked.  "Who can give it any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?"  Hamilton continued, "...whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general opinion of the people and of the government."

Yet, ultimately it was decided that a Bill of Rights should be added, and the First Amendment to the Constitution states "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

Coverage of the Sinking of the Maine
That freedom is not completely without limit.  For example, courts have ruled that a man cannot stand up in a theater and shout "Fire!" when there is none, to cause a panic that would likely cause injury to those attempting to flee a nonexistent danger.  Pornography is another example of limited speech, as is slandar.  In addition to legal limits, social customs have also limited speech in such ways as disapproving vulgarity, expecting the courtesy of quiet during religious observances and cultural performances, and observing traditions of sportsmanship during athletic competitions.  Each generation has shaped those customs.

From a political perspective, free speech and a free press allow issues to be debated and policies to be shaped.  In the case of Whitney v. California, decided in 1927, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote:  "...freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth."  In the 1880s and 1890s of Isaac Werner's time, publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer exerted huge influence across the nation, Hearst with the San Francisco Examiner, published in San Francisco, and Pulitizer with The World, published in New York. But, as described in last week's blog, countless small newspapers in towns across the nation also exerted their influence.

Coverage of the Sinking of the Maine
The images of front page coverage of the sinking of the Maine in Cuba illustrate the power of newspapers to inflame national support for declaring war against Spain, the New York Journal describing the explosion as "the work of an enemy" and The World declaring "caused by bomb or torpedo.  The advance toward war was already underway when investigation led to the conclusion that explosion of a boiler on the ship was the likely cause.

Today, many once powerful newspapers have ceased to exist, and the newspapers still being published in small towns have shrunk to a few pages which are no longer published daily.  Americans are more likely to get their news on television and the internet than from a daily newspaper, and concern is growing about altnews and 'alternativefacts.'

However, questions about truth and accuracy in the press are nothing new.  In doing the research for my manuscript, I found one interesting example.  Homesteaders in Kansas and elsewhere had gone deeply in debt when prices for their crops were high, and they had mortgaged their farms to pay for livestock, implements, fencing, and improvements such as buildings and windmills.  When crop prices fell and interest rates for the renewal of their loans soared, they were at risk of foreclosure.  A fear spread that English investors would buy up the mortgages and American farmers would fall victim to a serfdom like tenant farmers in Ireland.  Political parties added prohibitions against foreign ownership of land to their platforms--not just the populists but also the two mainstream parties, and states passed laws prohibiting foreign ownership of land.  Yet, while there were examples in Kansas and other states of communities in which settlers from other nations came as a group to settle, I struggled to find examples of foreign investors attempting to replicate the Irish system of tenant farmers in America, although many newspapers warned of that threat.

Next week's blog will explore the continuing role of the press in America, both in the past and the present.

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