It’s National Newspaper Week right now, and I’m really happy that the organizers of the annual event have chosen a theme this year that celebrates not only freedom of the press but also the other freedoms guaranteed to us in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The theme of this year’s observance, which runs Oct. 6-12, is “Think First — Know your 5 Freedoms.’’ Every year during National Newspaper Week, those of us who are or who have been in the crazy business of reporting the news talk up the importance of a free press.
I spent nearly all of my professional life as a newspaper reporter. I relied on the First Amendment’s guarantees to go where I needed to go to find and report facts and happenings that I believed would help people make informed decisions about what kind of community, state and nation they wanted.
Freedom of the press is just one of five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. The others are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble peaceably and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In a column written for Newspaper Week, Jack Miles, executive editor of the Richmond (Missouri) Daily News and Excelsior Springs Daily Standard, referred to the authors of the First Amendment as he wrote: “They assured there would be freedom of religion, and from religion, so the government could neither bless nor ban what anyone believes, as occurs under radical theocracies and community regimes. The founders secured freedom of speech, (freedom) to assemble and to petition the government to redress grievances, which is denied by China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and others that fear opposition. They also created one freedom that binds and protects all others, and has done so from before the founding of the republic – freedom of the press.’’
Miles says journalists help keep us free to question, learn and disagree. And he says seasoned reporters today know that “though telling the truth is made more difficult in these topsy-turvy times — when truth is flippantly called ‘lies’ and lies are defended as truth — if they do not do their duty, then no one will.’’
I spent most of my 40-plus years of news reporting working around the Legislature and state government. During that time I worked around the people who run for public office and who serve in public office, the people we routinely lump together as “politicians.’’
I loved the work. I always believed that if people in this country had as much information as possible, they would question and argue and talk and eventually come to decisions on policies and programs that do the most good (or sometimes the least harm) for the greatest number of people.
I nearly always believed that the rights of the people in the minority in any disagreement would be protected and that their voice would be guaranteed a chance to be heard. I believed people in this country had the right to worship as they saw fit, the right to speak their piece and the right to assemble, so long as they did it peacefully.
In high school government classes I should have learned but didn’t — maybe I wasn’t paying attention — that South Dakota was the first state in the nation to guarantee its people the right to actually petition their government in a formal way. This state’s constitution guarantees each of us the right to petition our government by initiating laws and constitutional amendments and by referring to public votes most decisions made by our government.
Citizen initiative is under attack in the state these days. There have been and continue to be attempts to make the petition process more complicated, to increase the number of signatures and to do other things that generally erode our guaranteed right to petition our government for redress of grievances. Sure, citizen initiative can be messy. The results can be less than desired and may even require a do-over. So be it. We are guaranteed the right to petition our government.
That is one of the five freedoms that must be nurtured and protected. National Newspaper Week is a great opportunity to remember that — to “Think First.’’