The First Amendment matters | Guest column


Having recently fought and won a war against a government that had repressed dissent, arrested colonists without warrants and incarcerated them without trial, the authors of our Constitution were determined to ensure that citizens of our newly invented nation would have the liberty to express any view, even to a powerful government.

With the First Amendment, our founders chose to address freedoms we consider fundamental today:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …”

An unhindered press provides citizens the information necessary to judge the value of competing ideas and the actions of our government. Press reporting on the conduct of government officials, in particular, serves our democracy (literally “government BY the people”) because it makes it possible for citizens to hold government and its representatives accountable.

In this experimental nation, “We the People” are the employers; we hire the government. And a free press helps us pick good employees.

As private citizens, we have the guaranteed right under the First Amendment to speak up and complain in the full and uncomfortable understanding that others have the same right to complain about our views. We protect our right to free speech, in part, by using it. And when we voice our concerns to those in government whom we have authorized to act on our behalf, we are participating in the writers’ of the First Amendment initial purpose: to protect citizens from the overreach of their government.

Recently, we have seen all these rights play out in our community. A few weeks ago, local residents registered their dissatisfaction with the behavior of a civil servant in an account they submitted to the Islands Sounder, just as our nation’s founders had empowered citizens, under the First Amendment, to do.

This paper published the account, which was also proper under the First Amendment’s protection of a free press. In publishing a citizen’s report of an incident, the paper did not advocate for any particular interpretation. However, it bears emphasizing: the press in this country has every right to advocate.

In the days that followed, in the online version of this publication, other local residents offered their opinions on the views expressed in the original account as well as whether it was fitting for the paper to publish that narrative. The rights of these commentators to speak freely are also fully protected by the First Amendment.

In our country, we citizens can disagree with each other, and with our government. We do so by expressing our views on the soapbox, in the ballot box and in the press. We do so without fear of reprisal by our government because the First Amendment protects our right to complain about the conduct of civil servants and the right of the press to convey our complaints.

In 1949, when the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling, which had denied the plaintiff’s right to free speech, Justice William O. Douglas put it elegantly:

“… it is only through debate and free exchange of ideas that government remains responsive to the will of the people …”

And a responsive government is exactly what we want and what the authors of the Constitution had in mind.

Meg Massey lives on Orcas Island.