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Talks by John Last Updated: Sep 8th, 2009 - 08:07:52

Freedom of the Press: Without Exceptions?

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(Talk given by John Ohliger to Prairie Unitarian Fellowship, Madison, WI,
January 3, 1982)

The text for my five minute sermon is drawn from the gospel according to A.J. Liebling, the renowned press critic for *The New Yorker* magazine. Liebling wrote: "The function of the press in this society is to inform, but its role is to make money.... Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one."

My answer to the question, Should there be exceptions to freedom of the press? is YES. There always have been, always will be, always should be exceptions to freedoms. Our belief in the total freedom to do what we want, when we want is a legacy of the illusion that we share in the all-knowing, all-powerful, but nonexistent, perfect Godhead. Our true freedom lies in partaking of those sweet liberties we engage in when we are in touch with that of the modest god in us all, or, if we prefer, the limited liberties in the context of our most conscientious efforts.

Our freedoms thrive on proper exceptions and limitations. Just as a poem achieves greatness within the limitations of the poetic form, so do our liberties serve us well when we know what we cannot do with them, when we find the minimal but important proscriptions that are right and agree to them democratically.

Total freedom of the press is apparently assured by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But there is a proscription, an exception, a limitation, that is wrong in my view, in the body of the Constitution itself -- Section 8, Subsection (8) of Article I: "The Congress shall have power ... to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and inventions."

Noah Webster of dictionary fame is given credit by some for bringing about the only reference to a specific industry -- the publishing industry -- in the Constitution. The exclusive right through copyright gives a monopoly -- a government protected semi-monopoly -- to the press. It has helped make the press a tool, essentially, of the rich and powerful. Even though Thomas Jefferson and others were opposed to copyrights in principle, our subsequent Constitutional history has been bent because of copyrights, and parallel industrial trends, in ways that mainly limit the power of the press to those who thrive in large scale corporate, commercial, and bureaucratic enterprises.

What this means to me is that whenever you ask yourself if there should be exceptions to freedom of the press -- to censor obscenity, to protect national security, to award those who are libeled, for instance (none of which I favor) -- you need to be aware of these far more powerful and pervasive exceptions. Economic and political exceptions that severely limit our freedom of the press. Exceptions that help perpetuate the myth that the arrangement of bunches of words and/or pictures in newspapers, in books, or on television is a property right. It is not. Creativity stems from community and is not a property right at all. Henry Ford emphatically stated that no one person invented the automobile assembly line. So must we recognize that our language and our artistry is part of our common heritage in which the individual plays a real but small part.

What are the appropriate exceptions to freedom of the press? I don't know. I do know that I don't get excited when Mobil Oil claims it is losing its right to that freedom because it has trouble buying time on TV for a political commercial. I don't get worried when the *New York Times* is taken to court for publishing the Pentagon Papers, or when the *National Enquirer* is slapped with a large libel judgment for offending Carol Burnett. Those biggies have so much more freedom of the press than you or I do, or than the small *Progressive* magazine has, that I don't see how our minimal freedom is thus more undermined than it already is by those biggies' monopolistic practices.

I do know that as we are deciding what the appropriate exceptions should be we ought to consider doing away with the government protected monopoly granted to the press in the body of the Constitution and by subsequent trends. We ought to do away with it not by yet another amendment, but by moving away from the commercial and bureaucratic values that this monopoly promotes, and by moving toward better small scale communal approaches.

As a start, to discover the right exceptions we ought to recognize the basic connections between three types of questions: First, questions about the appropriate limitations on any freedoms; Second, questions about the appropriate limitations on the right of any human being or corporation to grow rich and powerful and privileged, while others have less wealth, or are weaker, or are less privileged; and, Third, questions about government power to protect the rich at the expense of the poor, or to protect the bureaucrat at the expense of the citizen.

I believe that all people are entitled to equal access to the natural resources of this earth in line with ecological principles. If so, then we can proceed to rethink what minimal limitations we wish to place on everyone's right -- and even more important -- on everyone's *ability* to print or to broadcast.

In the modest societies of the future people will be more truly free, because they will be less hung up on getting ahead, in order to be secure from other people, who are pressured by our present gross value system to try to do the same. In that modest future we will then see that the exceptions to freedom of the press should not be government protected monopolies as they are today. In that better future the exceptions will be more in the voluntary spirit of what my grandmother used to say: "You should always tell the truth, but you shouldn't always be telling it."

© Copyright 2004 John

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