A Free Press is the Bulwark of Liberty
In the past two years, every time I hear a charge against the integrity of the news media, I hear the voice of Pete Colbey encouraging me to push back.
R. Peter Colbey was my eight-grade English teacher and the advisor to our high school newspaper. He loved the idea of the newspaper as a defense against tyranny and a watchdog for democracy. Each year, he took his students on a field trip to the then Erie Times, which was his favorite day of the school year. He clearly believed in the noble potential of the power of the Fourth Estate, and he wanted us to inherit his reverence for a free press and other news media to make our world better.
I remember coming to class one day with the First Amendment of the Constitution written on the chalk board: “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.” The lesson became an open discourse on Voltaire and Patrick Henry and our shared responsibility to defend our collective freedoms. It was heady stuff for a room full of 13-year-olds, but we were inspired.
Mr. Colbey was a fan of the American pamphleteers and the printers of broadsides. I remember him quoting Thomas Paine: “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry;” and George Mason: “The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.”
He regaled us with orations on the role the founding fathers played in preserving an open marketplace of ideas. A term first used by Justice Douglas in 1953: “Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.”
In defense of the marketplace of ideas, I imagine Mr. Colbey invoking another passage from Thomas Paine: “I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”
Mr. Colbey had seen Edward R. Murrow take on Joseph McCarthy, Woodward and Bernstein expose Watergate, and the transformation of public opinion about the war in Vietnam shaped by the independent news community. We had seen the latter two events as children, but couldn’t appreciate how rigorous reportage and a public faith in our news organization had shifted the views of the populace. We also weren’t able to fully appreciate how those influences strengthened democracy, but we did know that it was important.
Throughout our nation’s history, the freedom of the press has varied. The Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by John Adams were seen as a threat to a free press by Thomas Jefferson. It is important to note that both men were staunch supporters of an informed populace.
Jefferson wrote: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Thirty-three years before signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams established his reputation as a legal thinker in the brilliant document, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Laws in which he stated: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees, of the people; and if the cause, the interest, and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute other and better agents, attorneys and trustees.”
The Sedition Act of 1918 sought to limit criticism of the U.S. government by the press. In the dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States (1919), which unsuccessfully challenged the Act, Oliver Wendell Holmes called for the “free trade in ideas.” This sentiment helped fuel support in congress that led to the repeal of the Sedition Act the following year.
During the subsequent decade, President Coolidge celebrated what he saw as an era of unprecedented freedom and integrity of the press in an address to the Society of Newspaper Editors in which he declared, “The relationship between governments and the press has always been recognized as a matter of large importance. Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press.”
A generation and a half later, President Kennedy reiterated the importance of a protected forum in which a free people can wrestle with ideas of the day. In a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, he said, “Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. ... And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply "give the public what it wants" — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
During my lifetime, one of the great national transformations has been South Africa. Nelson Mandela reaffirmed the paramount importance of the press as a protection of democracy when he said, “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
As an educator, I have always felt especially indebted to Mr. Colbey. He used the curriculum as a platform to help us understand that there were principles worth fighting for, that an exchange of ideas had the ability to alter the framework of human rights, and that we had the ability and obligation to be the agents of our respective beliefs. We were still children, but he challenged us to take adult responsibility for our intellectual lives.
That is my greatest hope for our work with students, that we give them the tools to act upon fruit of their reason. Through that reason, they, as citizen leaders, must demand a free and rigorous press, which in turn will hold our leaders accountable as faithful stewards of our democracy.
 Constitution of the United State of America, First Amendment, 1791.
 Paine, Thomas: Letter Addressed to the Addressers, 1792.
 Mason, George: Virginia Declaration of Rights, Article 12, 1776.
 Douglas, William O.: United States v. Rumely, 1953.
 Paine, Thomas, The Age of Reason, 1794.
 Jefferson, Thomas: Letter to James Currie, 28 January 1786.
 Adams, John: A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Laws, 1765.
 Coolidge, Calvin: Address to the Society of American Newspaper Editors, 17 January 1925.
 Kennedy, John F.: Address to the Society of American Newspaper Publishers Association, 27 April 1961.
 Mandela, Nelson: International Press Institute Congress, 14 February 1994.