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EDITORIAL: Presidential views of the free press

Despite today’s polarized national political environment, the Free Press constantly strives to provide objective, non-partisan news coverage.

Perhaps this is where local news can truly shine, and provide its greatest contribution to the public good. By offering the basic facts on developments that affect our daily lives on a community level, we can help promote the formation of reasoned public opinion, afford some welcome relief from the rancor of our current national political scene, and underscore the ties that bind our neighborhoods: a new restaurant in town, a missing child, the upcoming spelling bee at the library, another river rescue, a new local theater production of “Oklahoma!”

On this day, newspapers around the country are taking a stance on the president of the United States and his views of the news media. It would be impossible for us to avoid this historic discussion of the free press — it’s in our very name. We will not dwell on the current president and his views, but instead offer a few words on freedom of the press from the American presidents who have come before:

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”

John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (Jan. 16, 1787)

“That right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

James Madison, Virginia Resolution of 1798 (Dec. 24, 1798)

“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 has accordingly been decided by the practice of the States, that 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, Report of 1800

“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Judge John Tyler (June 28, 1804)

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. 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, Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey (Jan. 6, 1816)

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Marquis de la Fayette (Nov. 4, 1823)

“If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address to the National Education Association (June 30, 1938)

“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 — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion. This means greater coverage and analysis of international news — for it is no longer far away and foreign but close at hand and local. It means greater attention to improved understanding of the news as well as improved transmission. And it means, finally, that government at all levels, must meet its obligation to provide you with the fullest possible information outside the narrowest limits of national security. … And so it is to the printing press — to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news — that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.”

John F. Kennedy, Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association (April 27, 1961)

“A free press is a foundation for any democracy. We rely on journalists to explain and describe the actions of our government. If the government controls the journalists, then it’s very difficult for citizens to hold that government accountable.”

Barack Obama, Remarks by President Obama at a joint press conference in Rangoon, Burma on Nov. 14, 2014

“Power can be very addictive. And it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”

George W. Bush, interview with Matt Lauer (Feb. 2017)


About the author

Charlie Sahner

“Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy." - Einstein


  • “A free press is a foundation for any democracy. We rely on journalists to explain and describe the actions of our government. If the government controls the journalists, then it’s very difficult for citizens to hold that government accountable.”

    Barack Obama, Remarks by President Obama at a joint press conference in Rangoon, Burma on Nov. 14, 2014.

    No one controlled journalists better than Barack Obama. It was an easy task. He spoke and he relied on journalists to agree. Agree they did. Obama was right about one thing. It was very difficult to hold HIS government accountable because the press NEVER questioned him or sought to undermine him. Anyone who dared to disagree was a racist. Their “Hope & Change Savior” was untouchable.

  • Thank you, Charlie Sahner.

    A very classy contribution to the conversation. This is not a policy dispute. A free press is part of who we are as a country. Whomever occupies the White House is just passing through. Regarding the current occupant , let’s hope the exit sign is prominently displayed.

    Keep writing, keep publishing.

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