The role of the media in society has been the subject of debate since before our country’s founding. Such was the oppression of the British government during the pre-Revolutionary era that our Founding Fathers, with great wisdom and foresight, codified “freedom of speech” directly on our Constitution via the first amendment. Through the years “polite society” has continually modified what was considered “proper decorum” when it came to public communication, it’s only been until very recently that our nation has forgotten the corollary of the First Amendment: “I may disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” In modern times, it’s becoming increasingly accepted to wish death upon those that disagree with you.
The role of the press in maintaining the freedom of speech cannot be understated, and jolly old England appears front and center in this fight. It was Queen Elizabeth I who, in 1585, first created laws to limit the freedom of the press. Here’s the flavor of those laws: First, all content had to be pre-approved by the government prior to publication. Second, actual printing was limited to pre-approved printing presses in Oxford, Cambridge, and London (does this begin to hint at the role of higher universities in condoning this censorship?). Finally, anyone in violation of these laws could be jailed and fined.
English colonists brought many things to the new land, including the idea of controlling the press. Things came to a head when, in 1765, the British Government passed the infamous Stamp Act. If you recall, this placed a tax on all newspapers printed in the colonies. The legislation was among the primary sparks of the Revolutionary War. It also might be the reason why, to this day, newspapers are exempt from sales tax. (You might want to ask yourself why books aren’t afforded the same privilege).
In more modern times, several famous Supreme Court rulings both solidified and limited the Freedom of Press in the United States. In 1931, the Near v. Minnesota case banned the government from passing laws that restrained the press from printing anything. This dealt a major blow to censorship. A few years later (1936), in Grosjean v. American Press Co., the court reaffirmed the prior prohibition against taxes specifically directed at newspapers. Bear in mind, it remained illegal for newspapers to print material that was considered “obscene” (although this is an evolving definition), libelous, and harmful to national security. Regarding the latter, in the 1971 case New York Times v. United States, the Supreme Court determined the federal government had no right to bar newspapers from publishing certain material regarding the Vietnam War.
Of course, we didn’t always get this “Freedom of the Press” thing right. In 1798, ironically not more than a generation removed from the Stamp Act, our own Congress passed the Sedition Act. This can only be described as one of the most “Huh?” moments in American History. Only seven years earlier, the country held out ratifying the Constitution to insure we had freedom of the press, but now Congress passes a law specifically giving the government the power to punish someone who publishes content criticizing the government? Go figure! The Sedition Act – the 18th century version of Political Correctness – didn’t survive past the John Adams administration. The Supreme Court has since said such laws violate freedom of the press.
Which gets us back to the role of the press and the little town of Alfred, just south of us, and its newspaper, The Alfred Sun. Since reentering the wonderful world of newspaper publishing, I’ve met many fine people, One of the first was Dave Snyder, publisher of The Alfred Sun (he actually lists himself as “Editor, Publisher, and Janitor”). As you might surmise, Dave reflects and represents the character of his small, rural, college-town community quite well. In his November 3, 2016 issue, he published something his paper isn’t in the habit of doing – a political endorsement. (As the second line in the editorial said, “We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought we could alter the political leanings of our readers.” Nonetheless, under the title “Alfred Sun endorses the lesser of two evils,” his century-plus old newspaper endorsed Donald Trump for president. Perhaps to comfort his readers, he prominently published (the headline had the same size as his endorsement) a more lengthy letter to the editor endorsing Jill Stein.
Now, on the face of it this might not seem too courageous. After all, according to the unofficial results, Trump beat Clinton by nearly three to one in his coverage area. Yet the fallout of Snyder’s endorsement was immediate. The following week featured letters to the editor calling the endorsement “appalling,” “ill-timed,” and “unfortunate.” Subscribers cancelled. But, to be fair, one letter did support Snyder’s move on the grounds of “a right to free speech” and he became a subscriber.
I spoke with Dave a few days after the election. He told me he thought an endorsement might tweak a few folks, especially those associated with the local colleges, but he wasn’t afraid to mention the 800 pound gorilla “polite society” thought better to avoid. He felt this form of self-censorship didn’t help the community. If his act could “give permission” for people to have an open and honest discussion, it was worth whatever arrows this pioneer might find stuck in his behind.
A month after Election Day, The Alfred Sun continues to receive and print letters to the editor on the topic of this small, rather meek, endorsement. It’s a testament to Snyder and his paper that one letter writer says, “At least you got some discourse rolling… perhaps helpful in providing a forum for the release of steam and hot air that have been built up these last few months.”
And, in the end, isn’t that the ideal role of a community newspaper? Rather than immodestly proclaim it is THE neighborhood watchdog, wouldn’t it be more helpful for newspapers to become comfortable acting as a facilitator of civil discourse. We can’t take our right to freedom of speech for granted. We need to practice it regularly. That means engaging with – and understanding – those that disagree with you. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the divisiveness of this past presidential election, which itself simply reflects the shouting heads on TV talk shows and the rude behavior of anonymous internet trolls and Facebook flamers, it’s that we need to talk.
A thriving community needs to talk. We need a forum where we can’t hide our identity. We need a place where our opinions can be boldly stated. More importantly, we need a place that’s not safe. We desperately need others to honestly challenge those opinions. That’s the only way we can improve those opinions. Which is the only way to improve our community. Which is the only way to improve our country.
And that, Charlie Brown, is what newspapers are all about.