The First Amendment commands the Government shall make no law abridging freedom of the press. Early American history shows that Government efforts to inhibit the press have failed badly. In 1798, the governing Federalist Party promoted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which criminalized any criticism of the President and Congress. These restrictions impacting the press were unpopular, and lead to the Federalist Party’s eventual demise.
Government hostility to the press has taken a sad twist in modern times. The President’s hostility has been shown by actions as overt as Tweeting insults about MSNBC anchors, to launching a social media video of himself attacking someone with a CNN logo on his head. Reporters are facing hostilities that were once unimaginable. A reporter from CQ Roll Call was shoved against a wall while attempting to interview an FCC Commissioner. The Justice Department has threatened to prosecute leaks, while refusing to rule out going after reporters involved in receiving information regardless of whether it is classified.
This unprecedented climate poses grave Constitutional issues. Government actions against the press today may be less defined than a modern version of the Sedition Act, but they show a troubling pattern threatening our Constitutional fabric. This freedom is needed now more than ever. Consider Michael Flynn’s departure from the White House, which was forced after the media disclosed he gave false information to the Vice President. Absent that reporting, a nondisclosed foreign agent with questionable judgment could still be operating in the White House as a national security advisor.
Our democracy depends on freedom of thought and open access to information holding government officials accountable. We may disagree on certain reports and viewpoints, but an unfettered media is key to avoiding autocratic rule. Hopefully the Constitutional guarantee of a free press will continue to overpower efforts by others to quash the free exchange of information over the airwaves.