John Peter Zenger was a New York journalist who, in 1733, voiced his disagreement with the Crown’s governor in New York, William Cosby, who replaced a disagreeable judge with a more agreeable jurist. Zenger’s paper, the New York Weekly Journal, wrote articles critical of the royal governor, who in turn criticized the paper for its “divers scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections.”
Zenger was charged with libel in a high-profile case. The case went to the jury, which returned within 10 minutes with a not-guilty verdict. The defense tried to establish a precedent that a defamatory statement is not libelous if it can be proved, thus affirming the underpinnings of freedom of the press in the Colonies.
About a half-century later, in 1789, the U.S. Congress, assembled in New York City under the leadership of Speaker of the House Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg and Vice President John Adams (also president of the Senate), sent a document containing 12 proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution to each of the state legislatures. Two of the proposed amendments were not adopted, and the remaining 10 became our Bill of Rights.
George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, proposed adding them to our original Constitution. It was agreed that the citizens of our fledgling nation had specific rights that had to be protected in law, but there were disagreements on how they should be protected. Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 84 that specific rights should not be named and listed n the Constitution, which would limit the scope by being too specific about the people’s rights. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was decided that the Bill of Rights would be excluded from the original document to improve its chances of ratification.
The first amendment, titled “Amendment 1 - Freedom of expression and religion,” reads as follows: “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.”
That’s it. That’s all of it.
Every U.S. president has had some relationship with the press, though some were more contentious than others. President Jefferson said, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” President Theodore Roosevelt was hounded by what he called “muckrakers,” or journalists with an eye toward social or political reform.
President Wilson during World War I wanted “to exercise censorship over the press to the extent that that censorship … is absolutely necessary to the public safety.” Congress did not agree. President Nixon compiled a list of press “enemies” and had them audited. The reporting of a free press eventually caused him to resign in the wake of Watergate. President Clinton, plagued by a tenacious press over business dealings and alleged sexual misconduct early in his career, was eventually impeached on perjury charges.
And so we come to the present. Our sitting president has made it part of his platform to label the media – the only profession specifically protected in our Bill of Rights – as the “enemy of the American people.” This is beyond political. It is Constitutional. For someone who took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” his attacks on the free press are, at the very least, dangerous and alarming. That said, the same Constitution that protects the press also grants those who read it, including the president, every right to agree or disagree with the content.
Since the Bill of Rights was passed 229 years ago, its First Amendment freedoms and the unhindered operations of the free press in this country have been a beacon to our entire globe and have lit the countenance of freedom for all the world to see.
Let’s keep it that way.