“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.”
First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
We’re coming up on an important time of the year, a period that is vital to our continued existence as a free country.
The week of March 12-18, 2017, is Sunshine Week, a seven-day period when we honor the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, Sunshine Week celebrates one of the tenets of said amendment, freedom of the press, enshrined by the Founding Fathers in 1791 to ensure the government couldn’t stem the free flow of information to the public.
Some may ask, “What right does the public have to know what’s going on in the halls and assemblages where laws are made?”
In a 1945 decision, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black answered that question when he wrote: “The First Amendment...rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public...Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution...”
But what does that mean? Any time laws are made without the full knowledge and understanding of the governed, we risk making laws that can cause harm to all.
Denying or removing rights diminishes all, not just the group who’s rights are at risk of being abridged. The infamous smoke-filled rooms, secret agreements, clandestine meetings, take the power away from the masses – the people by who’s caveat the lawmakers are charged with a duty – and place it in the hands of a few.
And governing absent the consent of the governed is the favored method of despots and dictators. That free flow of information is the sole path to freedom.
Even today, though, those freedoms are at risk. Just this past Friday, several national news outlets were excluded from a White House press briefing. All the outlets which were banned had asked hard questions about the current administration’s ties to the Russian government.
This is unacceptable. By refusing to speak to or with journalists who ask questions they don’t like, politicians place themselves in a position where their motives must be questioned. By talking only to outlets who ask the questions they do like, who only present the news the politicians want to hear, which paints them in the best light and ignores questionable decisions, the entire body politic is weakened.
There’s a growing belief today that politicians are owed deference, that we, as a people, should simply submit to their decisions, their actions, their whims, without question. But, again, that way lies despotism, a reduction of freedom and personal liberty, until nothing remains.
It’s the job of journalists to ask those tough questions, to hold politicians openly accountable for the decisions they make. Because at all levels, from the city council chambers to the Wyoming legislature to the White House, government belongs to the governed – the people – not to those who govern.
Every elected official is charged with his or her job – to make the rules, to establish the laws of the land – only with the consent of the governed. The final phrase in the same First Amendment which guarantees freedom of the press guarantees the governed the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
But, too many times in this day and age, our elected officials ignore the will of the governed. It doesn’t always happen, as in the case of a recent proposal before the Wyoming legislature which would have stripped gun-free zone status from university and college campuses in the state. To their credit, our state legislators listened, they heard to concerns of the people in the trenches, the university and college administrators and voted the proposal down.
Sadly, that is becoming more an exception than a rule, particularly at the national level. Terms such as “alternative facts” and “fake news” are being bandied about freely. Even the president, in an astoundingly acrobatic exercise in contradiction, said the facts of a recent news item were true but still labeled it fake news.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
Stifling the press is often the first resort of dictators and despots. In Washington, D.C., just down the street from the White House, is the Newseum, an interactive museum celebrating freedom of the press and promoting all five freedoms set forth in the First Amendment. A central feature of the Newseum is a list with the names of more than 2,000 individuals who paid the ultimate price to guarantee the public’s right to know.
Let’s not forget that sacrifice, the gift they gave us, which made this a better world. Celebrate your freedoms.
Guarantee ‘Your Right To Know’ is not taken away.