Politics & Policy

Don’t Edit the First Amendment

Tea Party rally in Brunswick, Ga.
The press tends to forget about the parts it finds inconvenient.

“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.”

That’s the full text of the First Amendment. But (with apologies to the old Far Side comic), this is what many in the press, academia, and government would hear if you read it aloud: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, blah blah blah, or abridging the freedom of the press, blah blah blah blah.”

Don’t get me wrong: The revelation that the Obama Justice Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to hamper or punish journalists is real news. DOJ trawlers dropped a gill net over the Associated Press in the hope of landing a single fish.

James Rosen, a reporter for Fox News (where I am a contributor), is the first journalist ever treated as a criminal under the Espionage Act. Other reporters at Fox — a news outlet the president has spent years trying to delegitimize — have been investigated by the DOJ as well.  

The press can always be counted upon not just to speak up for itself, but to lavish attention on itself. “We can’t help that we’re so fascinating,” seems to be their unspoken mantra.

And that’s fine. What’s not fine is the way so many in the press talk about the First Amendment as if it’s their trade’s private license.

The problem is twofold. First, we all have a right to commit journalism under the First Amendment, whether it’s a New York Times reporter or some kid with an iPhone shooting video of a cop abusing someone.

I understand that professional journalists are on the front lines of the First Amendment’s free-press clause. But many elite outlets and journalism schools foster a guild mentality that sees journalism as a priestly caste deserving of special privileges. That’s why editorial boards love campaign-finance restrictions: They don’t like editorial competition from outside their ranks. Such elitism never made sense, but it’s particularly idiotic at a moment when technology — Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, etc. — is democratizing political speech.

The second problem is that the First Amendment is about more than the press. In public discussion, First Amendment “experts” and “watchdogs” are really scholars and activists specializing in the little slice dedicated to the press. The Newseum, a gaudy palace in the nation’s capital celebrating the news industry, ostentatiously reprints the entire First Amendment on its facade. But if the curators of the Newseum are much interested in the free exercise of religion or the rights of the people peaceably to assemble, I’ve seen no evidence of it. 

White House press secretary and former journalist Jay Carney repeatedly insists that the president is a “strong defender” and “firm believer” in the First Amendment.

Even if that were true when it comes to press freedoms — and that’s highly debatable — it’s absurd when it comes to the rest of the First Amendment, with the small exception of the “establishment of religion” clause. Deeply secular, the press is ever watchful that the government might force someone to listen to a Christian prayer.

But when it comes to the constitutional right to exercise your faith freely, the press drops its love of the First Amendment like a bag of dirt. The president’s health-care plan requires religious institutions to violate their core beliefs. To the extent that such concerns get coverage at all, it’s usually to lionize “reproductive rights” activists in their battles against religious zealots.

The IRS scandal and the DOJ’s assault on the press may be two separate issues, but they are both about the First Amendment. The groups the IRS discriminated against wanted to exert their First Amendment rights to assemble, to petition government, and to speak freely. Then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi dubbed angry voters at local town-hall meetings “un-American.”

Some Americans wanted to exercise their religious conscience. (James Madison, author of the First Amendment, said, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”) The IRS told one pro-life group in Iowa that it had to promise — on pain of perjury — not to protest Planned Parenthood. That is an outrageous assault on the First Amendment as disgusting as anything aimed at the AP or Fox News.

By all means, journalists should be outraged by the president’s attitude toward the press. But if you’re going to call yourself a defender of the First Amendment, please defend the whole thing and not just the parts you make a living from.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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