The Real First Freedoms

About 12 years ago, I attended a journalism conference in Washington D.C. that focused on the local press. We spent a lot of time discussing what makes good coverage, how to make decisions within a larger ethical framework, and the importance clean, well-written and creative writing.

While all of these discussions have stayed with me — and made me better at my job — it was our visit to the First Amendment Center that has had the most lasting impact. We discussed the martyrs to free speech, our roles as news people in the democratic process and the ways in which the First Amendments protections — the rights of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition — are the basis on which we can call us a free society.

Gun rights groups say they are protecting the “first freedom.” Veterans groups proclaim that freedom isn’t free, implying that our freedoms flow from the military. But the only freedoms that matter are the five outlined within the First Amendment. They are what sets our nation apart — not our military power, not our economic reach, nor any of the other reasons offered by the purported patriots

Not everyone views these rights the defining principle of our nation. These rights have been under siege from hostile politicians and prosecutors who view the press as impediments and the right to protest as radical and anti-American.

In North Dakota, radio journalist Amy Goodman was charged with criminal trespassing “after she reported on a clash between protesters and Dakota Access Pipeline security officers, who used dogs and pepper spray in an attempt to disperse the crowd,” according to Mother Jones.

The prosecutor in the case, Ladd Erickson, argued that Goodman’s reporting was one-sided and that she was not a journalist, reported Mother Jones, a notion that’s dangerous to our democratic institutions.

A judge agreed with Goodman’s attorney, dismissing the case and essentially calling it an intimidation tactic.

“It’s quite clear to us that the state’s intent is to silence the press,” Judge John Grinsteiner said (Mother Jones).

Goodman was probably the most high-profile arrest, but she is not the only American to face potential jail time for exercising their First Amendment rights. Documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg was arrested while filming demonstrators who shut down tar sands pipelines in Wallhala, Mother Jones also reported. And the New York Review of Books reported on the arrests of a librarian and library patron at an event featuring former US Middle East adviser Dennis Ross.

At the same time, we have public condemnation of protests as terrorism (Black Lives Matter) and unpatriotic (Colin Kaepernick and other athletes kneeling during the national anthem), the corporate silencing of out-of-the-mainstream opinions (Curt Schilling and Phil Robertson today; the Dixie Chicks and Bill Mather in the not-so-distant past), a major party presidential candidate musing about violence against protesters and news outlets, banning reporters and calling for restriction on speech even as he advocates for speech by others (Donald Trump), and so on.

The dangers here should be obvious. But too many of us judge these threats from the perspective of our political ideology. Trump bemoans political correctness – by which he means the right to spout racist speech – while calling for censorship of news outlets. At the same time, I have friends who see symbolic acts – the hanging of politicians in effigy, for instance – as overt and prosecutable threats, who gleefully applaud when corporations use their bottom lines as an excuse to punish conservatives for their speech.

It has become a cliché to cite the French political philosopher Voltaire (though the comment, apparently, was first proclaimed by the writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall) in defense of speech, but the line is worth repeating: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” And that goes not just for Natalie Maines, but for Curt Schilling, for the Huffington Post and Breitbart News, for Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog; Twitter @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Instagram, @kaletwrites;

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2016

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