In the first week of July 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress debated, compromised, and ultimately signed their names to a declaration of independence from the British crown. The most important consequence of the document they signed was the establishment of the United States as a sovereign nation. Nearly as consequential, however, was the ascension of Thomas Jefferson to our national pantheon.
Thirty-three years old at the time, Jefferson was a country lawyer, a largely silent member of the Virginia legislature, and a late addition to the Continental Congress. His prominent role in crafting the Declaration turned him into a hero — an almost universally loved figure whose rural Virginia home today sees close to half a million visitors each year.
As the head of an organization that takes its name from Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson’s friend and contemporary, I can usually be found discussing Dr. Franklin’s legacy. But as an organization of journalists, we also feel a strong affinity for Jefferson, for whom freedom of the press remained an lifelong passion.
A casual look at Jefferson’s papers – both his political writing and his voluminous personal correspondence – reveal dozens of discussions throughout his life about the importance of a free press.
He was unyielding on the subject. Even when he saw newspapers fall down on the job or print content he considered scurrilous, he continued to defend their rights to operate freely and print whatever they chose. Jefferson saw journalists and printers as the principle defenders of our liberties — as our strongest bulwark against intrusive government.
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” Jefferson wrote in a 1791 letter to his friend Archibald Stuart.
Many of those who make up the government today don’t seem to share Jefferson’s sentiment. The past year has seen a series of outrages against those who practice journalism — the revelation last year that the Department of Justice secretly subpoenaed private phone records for several Associated Press reporters and editors; a New York Times reporter, James Risen, who faces the possibility of jail time for protecting his sources.
And now, a bill in the Senate – the Free Flow of Information Act – that purports to defend journalists but narrowly limits its protections. The act is a promising start, but it limits speech rights to those who fit an antiquated definition of a reporter – someone who has been recently employed at an established news outlet. These parameters would not have applied even in Mr. Jefferson’s day — remember the key role played by such pamphleteers as Tom Paine. Today, similarly, much of the best truth-seeking journalism is done online by independent publishers, who find themselves cut off from protection.
In other words, those in government today, with respect to freedom of the press, would decidedly rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too small a degree of liberty than to those attending too much of it.
Independence Day is a fine day for barbecues and fireworks. We should be enjoying the freedoms that our founding fathers and men and women in uniform have fought so hard for.
But we can’t forget the principles that the Founding Fathers sacrificed to protect. Let’s honor Thomas Jefferson – the man who helped shape the document that this day marks – by reaffirming that freedom of the press, while messy and uncomfortable, is the foundation on which all our liberties rest.
Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity