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First Amendment an obligation for editors

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Seldom does the editor pass up an opportunity to speak publicly about his profession.

But he had to decline a late invitation last week to be among the speakers Sunday at a Constitution Day rally sponsored by the Sauk Valley Tea Party.

The invitation came from Amanda Norris, who acknowledged that she and the editor “don’t seem to see eye to eye on many topics.”

“But I believe we both share a deep respect for the Constitution,” she wrote. “... I was wondering if you would be interested in speaking for 4-5 minutes on what the constitution means to you with regard to the First Amendment.”

She was kind to ask.

CONSTITUTION DAY was Monday, the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

The editor’s column last week observed the occasion with a quiz on the Constitution and American history. How did you do?

He has since thought about what he would have said about the First Amendment in his 5 minutes at the rally.

He came up with five points.

1. OF ALL FREEDOMS guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, which is most important?

History does not support the idea that the Founding Fathers intended to bestow a “firstness” on the First Amendment by virtue of its primary placement among those first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

But, practically speaking, the freedoms of speech and of the press – in addition to assembly and petition – allow us to publicly defend attacks on our other liberties.

“Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom,” wrote Benjamin Cardozo, a U.S. Supreme Court justice in the first half of the 20th century.

So, in a sense, there is a “firstness” about the First Amendment.

2. JOURNALISTS SEE the right of a free press as more than just a right to publish.

It is a special obligation under a contract the Founding Fathers made with the press – with journalists, essentially.

They gave us broad legal protection against retaliation by government officials at all levels who might want to punish the press for things we report.

Our part of the bargain is to keep an eye on government – and government officials – and report on their deeds and misdeeds, to make sure they operate in the public interest.

That’s a big job, one that has been made more difficult throughout U.S. history by a partisan press whose allegiance is to a political party or narrow ideology, not to the interests of a nation and its people.

High minded? Maybe.

But this is serious business.

3. IF YOU CANNOT get your letter published in the newspaper in exactly the form you wrote it, are you denied your right to free speech?

Some people think so. But the freedoms of speech and of the press are distinctly different.

You are free to express yourself in many ways – from a street-corner soapbox, to a door-to-door campaign, to the distribution of leaflets, to ... well, speech can take many, many forms.

Press freedom is specific to those who own a printing press – or other means of dissemination – to allow them to control the message produced.

A free press allows a publisher to use his judgment about what the public needs and wants to read.

With digital options, it’s easy for anybody to be a publisher these days.

The successful ones will be those with a reputation for reliability.

4. PRESS FREEDOM carries with it an additional responsibility for publishers (and their editors).

It’s called a “gatekeeper” role, one that has diminished somewhat as digital publishing (i.e., the Internet) has given people more and more sources for “news.”

A prominent publisher once defined news as “What the editor says it is.” But the technical revolution of the past quarter century has given everyone access to myriad information sources, allowing each person to be his own editor.

The gatekeeper’s job is to filter information, to make sure people get what they need to read to make intelligent and informed choices about governing themselves.

As information sources have expanded, publishers have been pressed to give consumers more of what they want to read. That has led to – in an era of cable TV and the Internet – a resurgence of partisan “news” outlets that tailor information to an audience that isn’t especially interested in dissenting views.

Some say the gatekeeper is dead.

But some of us continue to fight the good fight.

5. PART OF THE ROLE of the gatekeeper is to distinguish between accuracy and truth. They are not the same thing.

Journalists seek to avoid publication of obvious falsehoods and provable inaccuracies. A journalist’s job is to make news consumers smarter, not dumber.

That includes monitoring the dishonesty of political speech, which will be a special challenge over the next 6 weeks.

Most campaign claims start with an accurate assertion, but they almost always lack the context needed to understand the truth.

Political speech is seldom intended to make people smarter; it is supposed to keep them loyal.

Political speech is designed to fool voters with half-truths and exaggerations – while making them think they’re informed.

As Mark Twain observed, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”

The job of the journalist is to be nobody’s fool.

Not a bad aim for voters, too.

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