Monday, June 26, 2006

Freedom of our Founders

NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller has written a letter about a recent story reported in the NY Times. I think he has an odd understanding of our Constitution:
"It's an unusual and powerful thing, this freedom that our founders gave to the press. Who are the editors of The New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other publications that also ran the banking story) to disregard the wishes of the President and his appointees? And yet the people who invented this country saw an aggressive, independent press as a protective measure against the abuse of power in a democracy, and an essential ingredient for self-government. They rejected the idea that it is wise, or patriotic, to always take the President at his word, or to surrender to the government important decisions about what to publish.

The power that has been given us is not something to be taken lightly. The responsibility of it weighs most heavily on us when an issue involves national security, and especially national security in times of war. I've only participated in a few such cases, but they are among the most agonizing decisions I've faced as an editor."
I specifically point to the idea that Mr. Keller says the founders gave freedom to the press, and that the press was given some power. I'm guessing he is referring to the First Amendment:
"Congress shall make no law. . . .abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . ."
The language here is neither a grant of freedom, nor a grant of some power. The founders did not give freedom to the press. Nor did government give freedom to the press. The language found in the First Amendment says that Congress (and government more generally) cannot make a law that abridges freedom of speech or freedom of the press. These freedoms are inalienable rights of individuals that Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. Those who drafted and ratified the Constitution did not give individuals the right of free speech or of a free press. Instead, they wrote that Congress was specifically not being given the power to constrains these inalienable rights of individuals.

I think this is an extremely important distinction to make and to hold to. Writing as Mr. Keller does makes it far to easy to think we get our individual rights and liberties from government, that somehow government is gracious and giving to us. It seems to become easy to think that government has it all, and that we get what we have from the good graces of a good democratic form of government. This is not the view which is the foundation of our constitution, and I think the constitutional foundation is much, much better. Government gets what it gets from We the People, and it is not supposed to constrain our individual liberties unless we make specific grants of such powers to Congress in our written Constitution.

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