Attention Monday centered on the Electoral College and the end of a long, contentious election season. Today we celebrate another of our constitutional foundations, observing the 229th anniversary of ratification of the Bill of Rights.
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution represented a compromise that seems unimaginable today, yet leaders on both sides of the political spectrum surely can agree the individual liberties enumerated by members of the first Congress have proven invaluable over the past two centuries-plus.
The first article of the Bill of Rights, the cornerstone of our press liberty, is particularly important to journalists and the work we do. The past year has delivered the same severe financial challenges confronting most other businesses, but it also has revealed threats to our work as a check on government. Some examples:
• In February, the Fresno Bee was barred from an event with Rep. Devin Nunes and an official with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
A Nunes staffer told the newspaper its reporters would not be admitted. The California congressman filed a $150 million defamation lawsuit against the Bee's parent company, Sacramento-based McClatchy, in 2019.
• In March, the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief was denied entry to the capitol to attend Gov. Ron DeSantis' news briefing because she had previously asked for social distancing at the media events.
• In May, a former Indianapolis Star journalist who now operates a Memphis-based nonprofit news site sued the city and its mayor and communications director for removing her from the city's media email list and refusing her requests to be reinstated.
The complaint alleges Wendi Thomas was removed from the list based on her past coverage of the mayor and the city.
• In the week of May 29-June 4, more reporters were arrested in the U.S. than in the previous three years combined, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and Committee to Protect Journalists.More than 36% of the arrests, in more than two dozen cities nationwide, followed an assault: journalists were beaten, hit with rubber bullets or other projectiles or covered in chemical agents, such as tear gas or pepper spray, while covering racial-injustice demonstrations.
• A report released Monday by the Freedom Tracker group shows 117 verified cases of a U.S. journalist being arrested or detained on the job this year. The number represents a 1,200% increase over 2019.
While the First Amendment can't prevent those threats from occurring, James Madison and his colleagues had the foresight to ensure political leaders and others can't abridge freedom of the press without incurring resistance from the courts.
“Although critics of the contemporary press – which includes newspapers, radio stations, television stations, websites and every other form of informational media – like to use phrases like 'fake news,' the truth is that the newspapers of 1791 were far more biased than their modern descendants,” writes Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. “They were largely political organs full of outrage, exaggeration and lies. Yet it was in that very environment that the American people demanded a free press be a part of the Bill of Rights. They saw it as a check on a new and powerful central government and a protection against abuse of the Constitution and yes, the new Bill of Rights. Journalists who do their jobs well today are fulfilling the mission set forth for them in 1791.”
Today – and every day – we celebrate the Bill of Rights and our First Amendment freedoms.