The Founders’ view of free­dom of speech and the press

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Dr. David F. Forte “The ad­vance­ment of truth, sci­ence, moral­ity, and arts in gen­eral.” “Its dif­fu­sion of lib­eral sen­ti­ments on the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov­ern­ment.” “Its ready com­mu­ni­ca­tion of thoughts be­tween sub­jects, and its con­se­quen­tial pro­mo­tion of

For a cen­tury or more, judges, aca­demics, politi­cians, news per­son­al­i­ties and ev­ery­day Amer­i­cans have de­bated just what the First Amend­ment’s pro­tec­tion of free­dom of speech means.

Is it pri­mar­ily con­cerned with po­lit­i­cal speech? Does it give the press spe­cial priv­i­leges? What about de­mon­stra­tions, flag burn­ings, pro­fan­ity, movies, cable, the in­ter­net?

To find out what the Founders of the coun­try be­lieved, we just have to look at what came out of their mouths.

In 1774, the First Con­ti­nen­tal Congress met in Philadel­phia to or­ga­nize a co­or­di­nated re­sis­tance to the lat­est op­pres­sions by the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, the Amer­i­cans were out­raged by the “In­tol­er­a­ble Acts,” which, in re­sponse to the Bos­ton Tea Party, had closed the port of Bos­ton, put the colony of Mas­sachusetts di­rectly un­der the con­trol of the Crown, al­lowed for the quar­ter­ing of troops in homes, and pro­vided for trial in Eng­land of royal of­fi­cials ac­cused of crimes.

That Congress put for­ward a com­pre­hen­sive list of “Dec­la­ra­tions and Re­solves,” au­thored by John Dick­in­son, that de­clared the rights of the colonists and con­demned the depre­da­tions of those rights by Par­lia­ment. That doc­u­ment would lead to the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence two years later.

At the same time, the Congress sent a “Let­ter to the In­hab­i­tants of Que­bec,” also au­thored by John Dick­in­son, in hopes of con­vinc­ing the French Catholics there of the right­eous­ness of the Amer­i­can re­sis­tance. In that let­ter, Dick­in­son listed a num­ber of rights that the Amer­i­cans were de­fend­ing. And now we come to the crux of it: “The last right we shall men­tion, re­gards the free­dom of the press. The im­por­tance of this con­sists, be­sides the ad­vance­ment of truth, sci­ence, moral­ity, and arts in gen­eral, in its dif­fu­sion of lib­eral sen­ti­ments on the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Gov­ern­ment, its ready com­mu­ni­ca­tion of thoughts be­tween sub­jects, and its con­se­quen­tial pro­mo­tion of union among them, whereby op­pres­sive of­fi­cers are shamed or in­tim­i­dated, into more hon­ourable and just modes of con­duct­ing af­fairs.”

Let us look at the breadth and depth of this right.

This not a mere self-ex­pres­sive right, but a truth seek­ing right, a right bot­tomed on nat­u­ral law and those fun­da­men­tal goods that ev­ery per­son is en­ti­tled to pur­sue.

Free­dom of the press will per­suade those in gov­ern­ment to work for the com­mon good, and not for their own ad­van­tage. In the words of the time, free­dom of the press will pro­mote pub­lic virtue. Dick­in­son, who was the most pro­lific of writers de­fend­ing the Amer­i­can cause, had seen how his own works, as well as those of other Founders, had brought to­gether this most dis­parate peo­ple from Mas­sachusetts to Georgia, from ar­ti­sans to planters, from sea­far­ers to back coun­try folks, in a com­mon cause. Free­dom of the press had begun to shape colonists into a na­tion, an Amer­i­can na­tion.

“Whereby op­pres­sive of­fi­cers are shamed or in­tim­i­dated, into more hon­ourable and just modes of con­duct­ing af­fairs.” Men pre­fer to com­mit their sins in pri­vate, to deny, dis­sim­u­late, de­flect or defuse. But free­dom of the press is a rod on those in authority so that they will put aside their pas­sions and con­duct them­selves as true rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple.

There was no more au­thor­i­ta­tive writer in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­er­a­tion than John Dick­in­son. He au­thored the re­solves of the Stamp Act Congress, the Res­o­lu­tions of the First Con­ti­nen­tal Congress, Let­ters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Dec­la­ra­tion of the Causes and Ne­ces­sity for the Tak­ing up of Arms (with Jef­fer­son), the Olive Branch Pe­ti­tion, as well as the Let­ter to the In­hab­i­tants of Que­bec. Although he did not sign the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, he was the first af­ter Wash­ing­ton to take up arms in de­fense of the new na­tion. He drafted the Ar­ti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion, was a del­e­gate to the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion, and au­thored a num­ber of es­says in de­fense of the Con­sti­tu­tion. We can be as­sured that he spoke for the other Founders.

Although there would be abuses against Tory print­ers dur­ing the Revo­lu­tion, and although the line be­tween pro­tected and il­le­gal speech would con­tinue to re­quire care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, we know, nonethe­less, that for the Founders, free­dom of speech was a com­modi­ous right. It is a truth­seek­ing right. It in­heres in the na­ture of man and is es­sen­tial to his pur­suit of hap­pi­ness.

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