Although there is some debate about who said it, most of us have at least heard the famous quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Of course, this quote has a lot to do with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which I was lucky enough to discuss with students from Bourbon, Cuba, and Steelville high schools last week during the Crawford County Republican Central Committee’s annual Law Day at the Crawford Country Courthouse. The theme for this year’s event was “Free Speech, Free Press, and Free Society.”
Before speaking to the students, I reminded them what is in the First Amendment: 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.
I was invited to Law Day to specifically address freedom of the press, and was actually the only one to speak who was not an elected official. I shared with the students what freedom of the press is all about, some important Supreme Court decisions about press freedom, and urged them all to remember that all the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution are not absolute.
While we all have freedom of speech, freedom to practice our religion, freedom of the press, and more, those freedoms do come with limits. I had no idea the Cuba students, who attended the morning session, would get a first-hand demonstration of those limits later that morning.
Shortly after I left the morning session, the sheriff’s department received information about a possible threat to the courthouse. According to statements from a witness, a suspect had been heard saying, “I’m going home to get my gun and going to the police station.” As a precaution, both the courthouse and Steelville schools were put on lockdown and the Cuba students were removed from the building and protected on their bus until the suspect was apprehended, thanks to some quick work by several local agencies.
The Constitution guarantees free speech, but it does not protect all speech. Just like you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, you can’t threaten to shoot up a police department. We have laws against such speech, and our Supreme Court has upheld those laws as constitutional.
Much is the same for freedom of the press. The media can’t knowingly report false information about people without facing possible litigation for libel. If something is true, however, the media can report about it, with almost no limitations.
The Supreme Court has even ruled that the media can report on classified government information it has obtained. Why? Because the court recognized that our Founding Fathers wanted a strong press in order to be a watchdog on the government and our politicians, from Washington, D.C., right down to the local school board.
We should all revel in this freedom, and never take it for granted. And, we should all speak out when our freedom of the press, or any of our freedoms, comes under attack, especially when that attack some from those we have elected to represent us.
All our elected officials take an oath to “support, protect, and defend” the Constitution. When they attack any of our freedoms, they attack all of our freedoms. If you believe in the Constitution, then you must be willing to defend all of the freedoms it guarantees, even if the practice of some of those freedoms—like freedom of speech and the press—lead to things being said and reported that meet with your disapproval.
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