Do you think your fellow Americans would be alarmed and upset if the government wanted to remove a clause or two from our Constitution's First Amendment? Say, for instance, they wanted to revoke our freedom of religion, or our freedom of speech?
How about freedom of the press? You know, the one that guarantees that, short of certain illegal acts, people may write whatever they want, including questioning and criticizing said government, without being prevented, inhibited, or punished after the fact?
Our Founders considered a free press vital to a healthy democracy. A free press holds those in power accountable to the people who put them there. A free press is the only way to ensure the free flow of information and the public exchange of ideas. Most of the principles we embrace to defend free speech also apply to a free press.
Apparently, not very many people agree with our Founders or the First Amendment, and even more don't know if they do.
In a poll released on July 26 from "The Economist"/YouGov, respondents were evenly split on the following question: "Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose permitting the courts to shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate — or haven't you heard enough about that yet to say?" Just to be clear, authorizing the government to shut down any media outlet for any reason would be a flagrant abrogation of the First Amendment. Yet half the surveyed people who had an opinion were in favor of allowing this very thing: 28 percent were in favor; 29 percent were opposed; and 43 percent indicated they hadn't heard enough about the issue to say.
You would think that the GOP, the party that most vocally espouses limited government would be the home of the staunchest defenders of First Amendment freedoms. However, this same poll, in an even more stunning set of numbers, reveals something different when it comes to a free press. When asked the above question, 45 percent of Republicans said they were in favor of courts being able shut down media outlets (compared to 18 percent of Democrats), even though in another question 40 percent of Republicans said they thought it would violate the First Amendment (vs. 54 percent of Dems).
The GOP is also home of the Tea Party, a movement which ostensibly stood for returning to a (more) constitutionally limited government and, a few years ago, was supposedly 'taking over' the Republican party.
I am not picking on Republicans: Ten years ago, Democrats in Congress were talking about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine to combat right-dominated talk radio. These numbers would be worrisome regardless of party affiliations, because they represent a large number of Americans.
The press can be very irksome — when, for example, they conduct a hostile interview, are combative in a White House briefing, or criticize people we like and support — or worse, when they publish false or misleading stories or headlines.
But that's not against the law, nor should it be.
There is no law mandating the media be accurate or unbiased precisely because the Free Press Clause forbids it, reasoning that a republic is not free if the government chooses which media outlets have a right to exist and which do not.
A foundational insight undergirding our constitutional system is the recognition that a government by its nature will choose in favor of the enlargement and continuation of its own power. That is why the First Amendment shields religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly and petitioning from official encroachment.
We have a right to know what officials are up to, and for that, we need a press free from government interference. Giving up that freedom is letting the fox guard the hen house. It is not just giving the government more power to abuse — it's robbing every American of the right to read from whatever media source they choose.
What that 28 percent of Americans said they favor is nothing less than abolishing freedom of the press. This is not a strategy to remove one kind of outlet for bias or shoddy reporting. It is giving government (whether judges, bureaucrats, or lawmakers) the power to shut down anything they want, and after they have shut down one party's enemies, the next party in power will be free to turn the tables. Soon none of us will be reading anything but horoscopes and weather forecasts. Newspapers and magazines would disappear without much hope of reviving, and much of the Internet could be blocked from us (See: China).
No such proposal is in the works, but a dictatorial government already has most of its work done for them if citizens demand — or even accept — that their own freedoms be abolished. If less than a third of Americans understand and value a key component of the First Amendment, we are as close as we have ever been to welcoming its repeal.
Steve Dehner is a Forest Grove resident, a writer, and a library aide at the Cornelius Public Library.