The Freedom of the Press Is Yours

It is your right as an American to read what you will, to write what you think, and to publish what you believe.

Picture of newspaper on top of the Statue of Liberty
Lau / Fotolia / UbjsP / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

The press, says the 45th president of the United States, is “very dangerous & sick.” It causes “great division & distrust.” It is the “enemy of the people.”

Every president—starting with George Washington, who griped about his treatment at the hands of “infamous scribblers”—has felt maligned or misunderstood by the media. The rhetoric now emanating from the White House—remarkable in its ferocity, irresponsibility, and remorselessness—represents something darker. It is an attack not just on individual media outlets, but on the role journalism serves in a free society; not just on specific stories, but on the need for Americans to know the facts; not just on journalists, but on the right of all people to speak their minds.

The press in the days of the Founders was avowedly partisan—its stories frequently scurrilous, its language entirely unrestrained, and its members generally disreputable. James Madison understood all of this with painful clarity when he rose before Congress in 1789 and proposed an amendment to the newly ratified Constitution: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments,” he offered, “and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”

The legislators who ratified those rights within the First Amendment harbored no illusions as to what they were protecting. But they saw the press as Madison did—as an expression of the inviolable freedom of the people to publish their sentiments. They did not extend a conditional liberty, contingent on good behavior; instead, they recognized a basic right, worth preserving despite missteps, mistakes, and excesses.

The freedom of the press is an individual liberty, not the peculiar privilege of a profession or an industry. It is your right as an American to read what you will, to write what you think, and to publish what you believe. The press is neither the enemy of the people nor its ally, but rather its possession. That is why attacks on the press, one of the great bulwarks of liberty, seek to abridge or deprive the people of their rights, as Madison would have put it to his colleagues.

We know where attacks on the media can lead. When politicians have questioned the rights and legitimacy of the press, violence has frequently followed. The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798, saw editors jailed for criticizing the president. Pro-slavery mobs attacked some 20 abolitionist newspapers over the decades that followed, destroying their offices, dumping their presses into the river, and beating—or, in one case, killing—their editors.

That was the backdrop against which The Atlantic was created in 1857, in defiance of that violence, in defense of the right of a free people to criticize injustice where they see it. The Atlantic’s founders promised that it would be “the organ of no party or clique,” and that it would “deal frankly with persons and with parties”—values that we stand by today. This is why we now feel compelled to speak out—alongside hundreds of other publications—in defense of this essential freedom.

The president’s rhetoric doesn’t merely spread division and distrust; it is dangerous, and sick. Like all Americans, he has a right to critique the press. But he is also sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution—and this is what he must do.