NAA Free Speech Week Op-Ed

by Caroline Little, NAA president and CEO

There is a reason freedom of speech was carved into the governing fabric of our nation. The founders considered free speech one of humanity’s basic rights, and its provision in the First Amendment has been cherished by Americans ever since.

The Bill of Rights guarantees free speech to citizens and freedom of the press. They both go together. Both are necessary elements for democracy to work.

As James Madison once wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

And yet it is also our history that government seeks to encroach on these freedoms.

According to a Politico Magazine survey, 42 percent of White House reporters call the current administration the “most secretive” they have ever covered. At the NAA mediaXchange conference in March, Associated Press reporter Julie Pace and Associated Press photographer Charles Dharapak explained how difficult it is to cover the President. The administration has severely limited access to photographers and videographers for months, preferring instead to bypass the press and release one official and controlled image of an event.

At the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri a few months ago, reporters were arbitrarily detained by local authorities for no reason, confined in a “free speech zone,” prevented from taking photos and videos, and subjected to tear gas – essentially attempting to prevent the public from finding out information and understanding the events.

There has been a focused prosecution of both whistleblowers and journalists. The U.S. Department of Justice went so far as to seize reporters’ personal records and phone logs. The fate of New York Times reporter James Risen remains uncertain, as the DOJ is once again deciding whether or not to subpoena him for confidential source information, which could land him in jail if he refuses.

At NAA, we have been fighting for a shield law – formally known as the Free Flow of Information Act – and have yet to receive a floor vote on the bill. Even though the bill passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee more than a year ago, there has been no further action taken despite widespread support and public pressure.

This protection of free speech – and therefore, free information – is one of the major rights that sets us apart from oppressive countries across the globe where the people and press are heavily controlled by powerful leaders. Journalists in those countries are told what to say and are not allowed to deviate from the approved script. It’s the government’s way of trying to control citizens and tell them what to think.

We should be constantly on watch to protect our freedom of speech and of the press. These rights must be preserved as our founders intended. If we hope to continue to have a thriving democracy, we must not allow efforts to corral the media and our own ability to know what is going on inside our government.

President Thomas Jefferson posited that citizens may be governed by reason and truth. He wrote about the best way to do that: “The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

This week is Free Speech Week. It is worth remembering that the right to free speech enables the average citizen to speak truth to power. Protecting the rights of speech and of the press helps ensure the people—and not those temporarily holding public office—are sovereign.