With just 45 words the founders guaranteed five – no six – basic freedoms, fundamental American rights.
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.
This Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was ratified to protect freedom, to ensure liberty and to define the Republic.
These fundamental rights of freedom declare what it means to be an American.
As Americans, we are guaranteed:
The right to freely practice religion
The right to exercise the freedom of speech
The right of a free press
The right to peaceably assemble in protest
The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances
And the sixth – implied – right: The right to know, viz. the freedom of information.
It stands to reason that if the press is free to hold government accountable, if all people are free to openly express their opinions about government, to assemble in protest of government and to petition the government for grievances against it, that we also have a fundamental right to always know what government is up to.
Newspapers have a long and important legacy protecting the public’s right to know.
In that way, newspapers have always mattered.
The work newspapers do in communities has always been important.
However newspapers have never mattered more or been more important.
In 1841, Thomas Carlyle wrote about the power of the press, conjuring the words of Edmond Burke: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
Burke may have been chiding the press for its sense of itself, but Carlyle used his words to write about the importance of newspapers to democracy.
In an often-quoted letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if he were to have to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Democracy is best served when the newspaper provides checks and balances as the Fourth Estate of government. Newspapers are not the enemy of government – rather they are the champions of ordinary men and women.
Newspapers are the most powerful advocate the public can have and for that reason should always provide an open forum for a redress of grievances and public expression.
Newspapers hold government accountable because at our very core we believe that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing.
If newspapers do not stand up for the public, protect the rights of free speech and the rights of access to government, then no one will.
The provisions of the First Amendment do not exist to protect the press. Rather, the press exists to help protect those freedoms.
Far from being the enemy of the people, the province of a free and unfettered press is to help keep government in check and to defend the public against any assault on the five – no six – basic American rights of freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is CNHI’s regional editor for its Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas newspapers and editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times. He is the vice-president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com