The power of free speech: A newsman’s per­spec­tive

The Community Connection - - OPINION - John C. Mor­gan Colum­nist

Long ago and not so far away I started work­ing as a jour­nal­ist on a daily Ohio news­pa­per. I had just grad­u­ated with a master’s de­gree in phi­los­o­phy. What does a grad­u­ate de­gree in phi­los­o­phy get you other than walk­ing around ask­ing lots of ques­tions but not re­ally hav­ing a job, like Socrates of old?

I re­mem­ber the publisher say­ing to me when he of­fered the job: “We’ll put you on the city desk to start. That should clear out all the ver­biage your pro­fes­sors stuffed in your brain for two years.”

I thought that was a strange com­ment to make, but after a month at the news­pa­per I knew he was right. I soon learned to say in a few words what took me many pages and foot­notes to write in grad­u­ate school.

My real ed­u­ca­tion was learn­ing how to say sim­ply and clearly what I wanted to say.

In those days, ed­i­tors sat around a large ta­ble placed in the mid­dle of the press room. They barked or­ders to re­porters and of­ten yelled at each other. Smoke from cig­a­rettes and cigars rose above the desk.

I am sure now it was the un­health­i­est place to work, but it was a place where a small group of peo­ple learned to work to­gether. Decades later I can still hear their voices and see their faces, these sol­diers on the ed­i­to­rial bat­tle­field.

Be­cause it was a daily news­pa­per in a small city, we had to ac­com­plish many tasks. The news­pa­per couldn’t af­ford spe­cial­ists.

It could barely af­ford to pay us. I edited copy, wrote ed­i­to­ri­als and col­umns, cov­ered sto­ries about rob­beries and tri­als, and oc­ca­sion­ally wrote se­ries of sto­ries about harder top­ics, such as racial di­vi­sions in the city and why so many fac­to­ries were clos­ing.

On Satur­days, I filled in as the sports editor and in­ter­na­tional news editor.

I wouldn’t have known it then, but I do now that this was a great ex­pe­ri­ence. It taught me about how peo­ple could work to­gether to­ward a com­mon goal.

I wrote about peo­ple sur­viv­ing and even thriv­ing from tragedies. I min­gled with peo­ple I might never have done so in my aca­demic life — factory work­ers and store clerks, hair­dressers and oth­ers living day to day on the mean city streets.

After I left work­ing on the news­pa­per I went off to a grad­u­ate pro­gram in in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ism, in­tend­ing to do a sec­ond year in­tern­ship in Spain.

But the then dic­ta­tor of that coun­try de­nied me com­ing be­cause he held con­trol over the news me­dia and did not wish to have a stu­dent con­nected to an Amer­i­can univer­sity.

That ex­pe­ri­ence il­lus­trates the dif­fer­ence be­tween a coun­try which en­cour­ages a free press and one which re­stricts it or doesn’t want the facts out.

So I am thank­ful for those days, and I am up­set to­day when I hear peo­ple talk about “fake news” and dis­par­age jour­nal­ists. Have they ever read the first amend­ment to our con­sti­tu­tion which guar­an­tees free speech?

I be­lieve the first amend­ment in our con­sti­tu­tion is the heart and soul of our coun­try, what makes and keeps us a demo­cratic repub­lic.

In case you have never read it, here it is:

“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.”

John C. Mor­gan teaches phi­los­o­phy and ethics at Al­bright Col­lege in Read­ing. He is at work on a book about the first Amer­i­can jailed un­der a 1798 act re­strict­ing free speech. You can email him at: dr­johnc­mor­gan@ya­

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