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The First Amendment was Our Age of Enlightenment

“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot.”  -Katharine Graham

shutterstock_48534004The free expression of thoughts has been a challenge throughout the history of mankind. As more was written and widely disseminated, the spreading of these ideas were perceived as subversive and heretical by governments. Punishment for truth in expression has been “severe and unjust.”

During the Renaissance and The Age of Enlightenment, the world was soon to learn that “The censor’s sword pierces deeply into the heart of free expression.” (Earl Warren)

Fresh, new ideas spread rapidly throughout Europe to satisfy people’s unquenched thrust for knowledge and this changed history. This intellectual-cultural-political evolution was the “mother of necessity” that gave birth to improved printing presses and mass redistribution of literature.

As this genesis reinvented society, reaction from governments was severe. New European censorship laws were enacted out of fear for this “oracular serendipity” that questioned the autonomy and authority of century old political traditions!

“Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” -Laurie Anderson

People like John Milton targeted the powerful bureaucratic system of censorship practiced in Europe in his famous speech to Parliament, “Areopagitica” opposing the Licensing Act of 1643. In his noble plea for freedom of the press, he quoted ancient Greek author Euripides to demonstrate the evils of censorship: “This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.”

In 1694 the Licensing Act was repealed and he exclaimed: “Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind.” And this would prove that, as Geoffrey Ward said, “Journalism is merely history’s first draft,” as many others soon would learn.

In 1789 the French National Assembly proclaimed: “The free communication of thought and opinion is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen may therefore speak, write and print freely.” This one Act ended most non defense related European censorship for all. “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” (N. Chomsky)

shutterstock_169314491But, we all know that Europe is not Las Vegas. “What happens in Europe does not stay in Europe.”

Shortly after we drafted the US Constitution the states realized their rights had been “stepped on” and our Founders “hastily” assembled those historic ten amendments to assure them the “Feds” would behave themselves! After all, it clearly assured them that “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined.” (James Madison)

The ink had barely dried on the parchment when the former pilgrims learned, “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.” (Thomas Paine) And freedom of speech and the press would be interpreted a bit differently than they perceived!

The first major attack against the press was in 1798, when President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which inflicted grave punishment for writing or publishing “any accusations” against the government. This was shameful because it was in retaliation for something a reporter wrote about “his own administration.” Though this bad law was repealed, it reappeared in 1917.

In 1940, The Alien Registration or Smith Act made it a criminal offense for anyone to write about the overthrow of the Government. It required all aliens to register their status.

Although in theory this seemed legitimate, the law was used strictly to go after suspected socialists, and members of the US Communist Party. And, it was not declared unconstitutional till 1957.

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences.” -M.J. Wheatley

English common law had always granted individuals who felt defamed in print the right to sue for libel. But in 1964, the Supreme Court set precedent for libel cases where the plaintiff only needed to prove the publication acted with negligence.

This “pounded” another nail in the coffin of our free press. They could still publish anything, but they would be liable for all content. Obviously freedom of the press never meant freedom to publish “freely” without facing legal consequences. And this proves that “A censor is a man who knows more than he thinks you ought to.” ( Laurence Peter)


Mae West

In 1930, Hollywood’s Will H. Hays convinced industry producers to follow rigid standards for decency as a reaction to this risky line in a Mae West movie: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

The Motion Picture Production Code set industry moral censorship guidelines for all US motion pictures until 1968. It is also popularly known as the Hays Code. Mae West herself noticed that “Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from.”

By 1934, the US government was about to strike it’s most deadly blow against free speech! Again, another government agency was established with good intentions, but “Without self-discipline, success is impossible.” (Lou Holtz)

That monster the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was born out of necessity to issue broadcast licenses. But, like any unsupervised child, trouble is eminent: And since, as Dr. Seuss said, “Adults are obsolete children,”  they too must be vigilantly subjugated. Idleness is not always the “Devil’s workshop” if you work for the government!

Their 1st major weapon was the “Fairness Doctrine”; an attempt to silence the politically powerful three major networks. Eventually repealed, the attempts to bring it back are unrelenting!

Today, the FCC albatross is strangling free speech on our radio, wire, satellite, cable and TV stations with its army of 2,000 feds. Their main goal now is to fine people for not following “their arcane rules” of censorship!

And even feel it is now their duty to protect “us” from the devils of the Internet, today’s last bastion of free, uncensored, journalism in the world! And that is scandalously discreditable!

Attacks against freedom of speech, media, and the press have been historically obdurate. As print journalism vanishes daily, the importance of protecting our electronic airwaves for open, honest uncensored dialogue is preeminent!

In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Internet to be a “free speech zone,” deserving all First Amendment protections as that afforded to newspapers, books, and magazines: that includes “cyberspace” journalists!

“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.” -Justice Potter Stewart

Our new media must entertain the same protections under the “Shield Laws” that cloister the anonymity of our print journalists without censorship or regulation! “Only the suppressed word is dangerous, (Börne) and “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly.” (Plato)

The FCC works for us not “the government.” We are Americans with an iron clad first Amendment! The Internet is “our” Age of Enlightenment and Renaissance for all journalists! “Democracy must be built through open societies that share information.” (A. Jahjaga)

The First Amendment is our only tool to sustain our liberty and freedom!

William Haupt III

William Haupt III is a retired professional journalist, citizen legislator in California for 40 plus years, and author. He got his start working to approve prop 13.

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