President, The Wall Street Journal
“It may surprise you when I suggest that one reason I want to talk about freedom of the press is that in some respects I think it has been talked about too much.”
While I never met Elijah Lovejoy, I have had some contact with Colby College and its graduates and I am especially pleased to have been invited to come here. Even more significant to me, personally, is the list of previous winners of this high award from Colby. These are men that I do know and in most instances know well. It is a most distinguished company you have asked me to join.
It seems appropriate to me this evening to talk for a few minutes about something that was basic in the days of the founding of our country, that was basic in the troubled times of Elijah Lovejoy and is basic to us today. So my subject, in general, is freedom of the press. It may surprise you when I suggest that one reason I want to talk about freedom of the press is that in some respects I think it has been talked about too much.
By this I mean that freedom of the press has been discussed to such an extent and in such a way that the explanations of what it is supposed to be have become very complicated. This can lead to serious misunderstanding. If freedom of the press is in danger today where it exists, and making slow progress in areas where it does not exist, I suggest that we look for part of the explanation in the carelessness of its well meaning friends.
So, let’s stick to fundamentals. Freedom of the press is the right to own a printing press, in the first place. This right had to be fought out in England when the machine itself was licensed and it had to be fought out in America where licensing was supposed to have been enforced. Freedom of the press is also the right to report and comment on public affairs in print. This aspect of freedom of the press was fought out, in large measure, here in America and the battle was won by the editors of little weekly newspapers hardly any bigger than this sheet of letter paper I hold in my hand.
The further we go beyond these plain and simple fundamentals–the right to own a printing press and the right to report and comment on public affairs–the greater risk we run of weakening our position.
At the risk of some misunderstanding, I would insist that freedom of the press, like other basic freedoms is an individual right. While it may be shared by a partnership or a group, it is not a “peoples” right. While democratic government depends on freedom of the press to function effectively, the press is not part of the government.
Freedom of the press has nothing to do with the quality of the press. I prefer quality to non-quality and so do you, but this is not the point. Quality is a matter of opinion. Elijah Lovejoy, in the opinion of some of his contemporaries, did not meet proper standards of quality.
Nor is freedom of the press concerned with the ethics of journalism or individual journalists. When a cub reporter says he won’t put up with editorial conditions on a newspaper that has hired him, we may admire his professional standards and his courage; but it is not a matter of freedom of the press. Nor does freedom of the press enter into the question of controls or supervision over college newspapers.
I’m sure a fair share of misunderstanding about freedom of the press, and even some feeling against it, has come from ignorant or at least ill-advised newspaper publishers who have used the argument of freedom of the press against all sorts of business regulations or even taxes that are generally applicable to all business and have no special restricting effect on the press as such. It seems to me freedom of the press grants no exception, for example, from child labor laws if the community or the country adopts such laws in general. Automobiles or trucks operated by newspapers have to have licenses just like all other vehicles–there is no constitutional issue here.
“Yet I do not see the broadcast media on the way to becoming an effective substitute for the printed word.”
These things all get settled in the long run. But it is easy to see how freedom of the press gets confused as a clear and fundamental right when the debate ranges all over the lot.
Now I would like to make one final suggestion that I know is controversial. But I would like to suggest that we are going to get the issue of freedom of the press obscured dangerously if we try to stretch it to fit the radio and television industries that operate and apparently must operate for some time in the future under government licenses. I concede right at the start that radio and television do transmit news and information about public affairs. This does not seem to me to be their basic or anyway their main function–the time and effort they spend on it is generally small in proportion to their entertainment function. But they do carry news. They carry it fast and in some instances they carry it most effectively.
Yet I do not see the broadcast media on the way to becoming an effective substitute for the printed word. Even this is not the main issue. The main issue is what damage we may do to the basic rights of freedom of the press if we undertake to stretch–or more properly limit–this freedom to a concept that makes it somehow compatible with a government license. It seems to me that no matter how loose the reins may be, and I am inclined to think in recent years they have been looser than they are going to be in the future, the argument that freedom of the press protects a licensed medium from the authority of the government that issues the license is doubletalk.
The press was once a licensed industry. In some places and under favorable conditions it did pretty well. The first newspaper regularly published in America was published “by authority.” It carried that label in 1704.
But this authority was flouted a couple of decades later by such sturdy printers as James Franklin and his younger half-brother, Benjamin. Licensing just became impossible to enforce in the American colonies. Only after licensing broke down was it possible to settle the other basic issue of press freedom which involved John Peter Zenger and the right to report and comment unfavorably on public affairs without being accused of sedition.
Broadcast media are licensed in the United States for technical reasons and not to limit their freedom. But as things stand now, licensing seems to be unavoidable.
Now what is the point of what I have tried to say about freedom of the press? Just this:
When we make freedom of the press vague or complicated we undermine it. We cannot make it plain to ourselves nor to our friends abroad–let alone those who disagree with us on basic freedoms.
If freedom of the press is not an individual right, but somehow belongs to the people in general and can become a part of the government then it is a lost right.
If freedom of the press depends on the quality of the material printed, then this becomes a matter of opinion and official opinion prevails. Freedom of the press qualified by official opinion on quality is no freedom. Nor is freedom of the press safe if it is qualified by official opinion as to the beliefs and behaviour of those who are allowed to practice journalism.
Finally, I think that if we try to argue that freedom of the press can somehow exist in a medium licensed by the government we have no argument against a licensed press. That would put us back to the very beginning of the fight for this freedom.
Sure–I suppose there can be freedom of a sort under all these various limitations. But that’s my point. We are not trying to establish freedom of a sort for the press. Freedom of a sort was not enough for Benjamin Franklin. It was not enough for Peter Zenger. It was not enough for Elijah Lovejoy. And it is not enough for us today if we want to live in the great tradition of freedom and see it spread further around this troubled world.