The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution spells out five rights of every American against which the government may not construct any laws to restrict, alter or eliminate. These are the freedom of speech, of religion, a free press and the right to assembly and to petition the government with grievances. None of these are guaranteed. These rights and freedoms are only in place so long as enough citizens demand them, a free press protects them and supportive legal arguments win their day in court. These freedoms and other parts of our Bill of Rights have come under continuous legal and governmental attack during the long history of our nation. We believe this is so today.

Rollie Atkinson Column Photo

Rollie Atkinson

Oct. 6-12 is being celebrated as the 79th annual National Newspaper Week. and this year’s theme is “Think F1rst, Know Your 5 Freedoms.” Knowing them is good, fully demonstrating them is better and protecting them is essential.

It’s not just laws or the Constitution that protects these rights. Customs, traditions and widely held beliefs are actually stronger protections of our freedoms than words on a sacred document like our Bill of Rights.

We recently hosted journalist Lowell Bergman at a public event where the topic of freedom of the press and speech came up. The Pulitzer Prize winner and well-traveled investigative reporter warned our audience that the First Amendment’s protection for journalists and newspapers is very limited. He testified from his own experience that journalists have very few guaranteed rights of access to many government documents or information. They are not protected from retaliation by government officials or others. American journalists continue to be jailed for not revealing their sensitive news sources. Displaying a T-shirt emblazoned with “Enemy of the People,” Bergman reminded everyone that current attacks against our free press are coming from the highest places in our government, including from President Donald Trump. The Trump Administration and the president currently have a series of court challenges to block the press’ access to public records and to suppress government transparency.

Bergman’s warnings that evening are being joined this week by essayists writing on the theme of National Newspaper Week. These writings argue that the most important freedom is of the press. It requires a free and independent press to serve as the frontline defender of all other freedoms and rights of the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution. It takes a robust and well-funded press to, not only to inform the public and all citizens, but also to alert and arouse the citizenry when challenges must be mounted.

Before there was a United States or a set of laws, all citizens and colonial journalists were subject to jail, punishment or banishment. A famous case in 1733, where printer John Peter Zenger was jailed by the New York governor for printing scathing-but-true accounts of government misdoings, led to a new concept of the emerging democracy — that telling the truth is its own defense.

If we live in times where the concept of the truth is under attack or being corrupted, then all our rights and freedoms are under attack, too. Ask yourselves this week if that is, or, is not the case across America today. We greatly fear that it is.

When today’s journalists and their newspapers are suffering from great economic losses and digital technology disruptions, the capacity to defend our democracy’s freedoms and the public’s right to know is being weakened. Telling the truth takes more than courage and the belief in journalistic ethics — it takes a newspaper’s financial strength as well.

As we said, our First Five Freedoms are not guaranteed. We cannot simply sit back and expect that the First Amendment will rush in to preserve the press and with it our right to know.

Like all the freedoms and traditions we share in our local community and with this newspaper, our safety and enjoyment of our family, neighbors and towns are only as long-lasting as is our collective efforts to support and defend them. Newspapers do that.

 — Rollie Atkinson

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