Celebrate the First Amendment on Independence Day

June 30, 2017 05:00

By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Incoming Executive Director

It’s just one sentence. But it’s oh, so important.
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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment is what gives us as responsible journalists the Constitutionally-guaranteed right, or, as I like to put it, duty, to gather and report facts to serve our republic’s citizens. It is also what gives those citizens the right to know, through the conduit of responsible journalism, what their government is doing on their behalf, regardless of whether government officials like or appreciate it.
On this 241st birthday of the United States of America, perhaps more so than on any of our nation’s other birthdays in recent times, I believe the citizens of this country should celebrate the First Amendment in particular. Because it is under attack.
I’m not referring solely to our highest-ranking national elected officials and their supporters. And I’m not just talking about people of one political party or on one end of the ideological spectrum. RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force has documented a number of cases in recent months of reporters being obstructed, harassed, arrested and even assaulted merely for trying to do their jobs.
The fact is, however, that our country has a long history of contentious relationships between presidential administrations and the news media, even when, in some cases, they seemed to be just fine. Click here for a quick review of the relationships between presidents and the news media from FDR through Obama.
On this Independence Day, I hope we can all – public officials, members of the public who profess distrust of the media, and responsible journalists – take a deep breath, relax for a moment or two, and reflect on the state of the First Amendment in today’s political and ideological environment.
And by First Amendment, I mean all of the First Amendment, not just the part that guarantees freedom of the press. We live in times when people of all beliefs far too often rhetorically shoot-ready-aim instead of thinking first about the consequences of their statements before they make them, and actions before they take them.
Our task force has said it before, and I’ll say it again now: It’s time to tone down the rage that has led to an environment in which people don’t just have opposing views any more. They have deep-seeded hatred for each other.
I also take the occasion of this holiday to remind Americans that for every time someone gets personal in this debate about claims of “fake news” and the media being the “enemy of the people,” there is a reporter in Roanoke or Cedar Rapids or Boise doing research. Asking thoughtful questions. Looking to shed light on government activity or inactivity regarding the problems and challenges that face the United States.  
We, as the community of responsible journalists, don’t take this personally. We’ll be working through the holiday that honors the very foundation our country is based on – the First Amendment. 
Happy Fourth of July. We are journalists. We are proud to be Americans.
(RTDNF Chair Kathy Walker contributed to this column.)