Celebrate the Third – no, the First – Amendment September 17th

September 15, 2017 02:30

By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Source: ConstitutionDay.com

There’s a reason the First Amendment is first!
A statue of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, as displayed at the National Constitution Center.

Journalists say that from time to time, sometimes defiantly, especially when defending press freedom. And we’re right, but not for the reason we’d like to think.
You may have forgotten from your history classes, or you may have never known, that what we have always known as the First Amendment – protecting religious expression, speech, the press, peaceable assembly and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances – was originally the Third Amendment.
On September 17, 1787, our Founding Fathers, the 40 members of the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, signed and sent to Congress the proposed Constitution of the United States.

The Bill of Rights contained 19 amendments. Congress adopted 12, which were sent to the then-14 states for ratification. The first two didn’t meet the three-fifths ratification standard and were discarded. Hence, what was originally the Third Amendment became the First Amendment.
Why is this significant on this year’s Constitution Day? The 230th anniversary of the day our Founding Fathers signed and submitted the proposed Constitution to Congress?
Because in our current environment, even though the original Third Amendment became the First Amendment, too many people – at all points along the ideological spectrum – treat journalists as third-class citizens.
The RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, a founding partner of the nonpartisan U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, has documented at least 20 arrests of journalists in 2017 who were merely performing their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to report and seek the truth. At least 19 journalists have been physically assaulted.
This should not go on. Unfortunately, we’re afraid the situation will get much worse before it gets better. Already, consultants for some candidates in the 2018 election cycle have advised their clients running for Congress to attack the news media, because it’s a tactic that worked extremely well for President Trump.
The task force has a two-pronged mission: to defend against all attacks on the First Amendment and press freedom, and to help members of the public better understand why outstanding responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as unfortunate as they were, showed the best of responsible journalism. Many reporters and photojournalists risked their own safety to save lives by providing up-to-the-minute information about warnings, evacuation routes, shelters and recovery efforts. And some journalists literally saved lives by putting their duties as citizens ahead of their duties as reporters and photojournalists to save people who were drowning in the raging floodwaters.
In one case, a local television reporter in Houston helped a pregnant woman deliver her son.
Local journalists are citizens of the communities they serve. They attend the same places of worship, and their children attend the same schools, as the public to whom they report the news. Why did we get to the point where some started considering them “the enemy of the American people?”
It’s all so unnecessary.
So please, even if for only a moment, take some time on September 17th (or Monday, September 18th, when Constitution Day is officially observed this year) to honor the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment may have originally been the Third Amendment. But we at RTDNA believe that it did become the First Amendment for a reason: that freedom of the press and the other freedoms it protects are paramount to the continuing success of our republic.
Note: The original First Amendment prohibited Congress from giving itself a pay raise during its current term. Although it failed to be ratified by three-fifths of the states during the period 1787-1791, it later did become a Constitutional amendment. The original Second Amendment dictated the number of representatives in Congress based on the U.S. population in 1787. Two of the then-14 states wisely intuited that the U.S. would grow, so they declined to ratify it. The original Fifth Amendment, now the Third Amendment, prohibits the U.S. military from occupying a house in our nation without the consent of the owner during times of peace.