Attacking the Right to Know

Long before the American Revolution, Americans created a free press, enshrining the right to know what their leaders are doing and to comment on their actions.

In the mid 1730’s, the newspaper owner of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, severely criticized a corrupt royal governor. Zenger was charged before the court with seditious libel. His lawyer argued that Zenger had printed the truth, even if it was critical of the governor. Based on that argument, the jury refused to convict Zenger. Over a period of time, this judgement contributed to truth as the principal argument for press freedom during times of controversy.

A Sedition Act in the tumultuous 1790’s, held that anyone who impeded the policies of the government or defamed its officials, including the president, would be subject to fine and imprisonment. Enforcement ended after Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800.

The United States has suffered many divisive periods. What is presented as news has not always been as responsible as it might have been. However, the right of citizens to debate and criticize their officials in the media is a long-cherished stone in the wall against abuse of power by those in office.

President Trump appears unable to accept criticism. Even further, his administration apparently wishes to banish any unfavorable reporting about his administration’s policies. Trump and his officials brand even reputable, long established news organizations as existing to create “fake” news.

Check Trump’s own tweets for a long list of unsubstantiated fake news.

One only has to consider Russia or Turkey to see what happens when people who disagree with officials are silenced.

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