From more than two centuries, thoughtful American leaders have fiercely defended a free and independent press – none more eloquently than Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president.
But during his eight years as president, even Jefferson got grumpy about newspapers.
Freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution – "Congress shall make no law ... abridging freedom of speech, or of the press." For 230 years, freedom of the press has been the secret sauce of American democracy. Free government and free markets are built on individual decision-making. A free press provides the information we need to make good decisions. A free, noisy, unbridled press was the genius of our founders.
It isn't surprising that a free press may seem less appealing to people on the receiving end of unflattering coverage, though it is important to note that Jefferson's complaints were made in private letters, not public rants. As we celebrate Sunshine Week, an annual reminder of the importance of open government, here are a few historic quotes about freedom of the press from the days of America's founding to the present. Many of these are culled from Wikiquote.org's page on freedom of the press.
Before Jefferson became president:
"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter, Jan. 16, 1787
"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost."
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter, Jan. 28, 1786
During Jefferson's presidency:
"Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter, June 14, 1807
"As for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers."
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter, July 5, 1806
After Jefferson's presidency:
"The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter, Jan. 6, 1816
"Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press... It is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding the proper fruits. And can the wisdom of this policy be doubted by any who reflect that to the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression."
— James Madison, one of the authors of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth president of the United States, Report of 1800
"The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments."
— George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776
"Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. ... And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution."
— John F. Kennedy's Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association (April 27, 1961)
"Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."
— Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. in the 1964 decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
"In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."
— Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black in the landmark 1971 decision New York Times Company v. United States
"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people. ... The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic."
— Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black in the landmark 1971 New York Times Company v. United States
Milne: No matter how imperfect things are, if you've got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.
Ruth: I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand.
— Tom Stoppard in his play "Night and Day," 1978
"We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital. If you want to preserve – I'm very serious now – if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."
— U.S. Sen. John McCain on Meet the Press, Feb. 19, 2017