The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, guarantees freedom of religion and speech, the press and the right of people to gather to protest and complain to the government.
It protects reporters against those who try to block us from reporting. But journalists in the United States have seen a rise in aggressive language and behavior by politicians and the public. A lot of this aims at keeping us from doing our jobs.
Before a congressional election in Montana in the spring, Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs was body-slammed to the ground by Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, who went on to win the seat in Congress.
However, Gianforte was arrested and charged with assault. In Gallatin County court in Montana, a judge sentenced him to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management classes.
Gianforte later donated $50,000 to The Committee to Protect Journalists and that group, with the backing of other press freedom organizations, recently set up U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The site monitors interference with journalists or attacks on them in the U.S.
Recently, it posted something close to home. A reporter for Gothamist was arrested by CUNY public safety offices for trespassing on the Bronx Community College campus. He went there to report about statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the college’s outdoor “Hall of Fame for Great Americans.”
Despite the difficult climate for journalists in the U.S. today, we have history on our side.
Here’s what the First Amendment actually says:
“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 to freely assemble, and petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
After the founders of the United States wrote the U.S. Constitution, some of them realized they had left out critical guarantees to safeguard the type of nation, free of tyranny, they and others wanted.
The newly minted senators and congressmen debated about whether “checks and balances” would protect the rights of the people, or whether they needed to write amendments to the Constitution.
Freedom of the press was one of the priorities for Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson wrote a letter to another lawmaker saying,
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Some wanted to rewrite the Constitution but worried that people would think that they intended to tear up what they wanted to protect. They turned to U.S. Virginia Representative James Madison, a good thinker and a good writer.
Madison argued that, “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. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
In 1789 Madison drafted amendments and presented them to the House of Representatives. The House approved 17 amendments. The Senate approved 12 and the states ratified 10 in December, 1791 as the Bill of Rights.
Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States and James Madison became the fourth.