In Defense of the Free Press & the Right to Know

There is a reason the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees the freedom of the press. By doing so, those who created the governing system for this democratic republic ensured that the right of the people to know what was being done in their name would remain paramount.

Public officials might wish the press did not have the Constitutionally protected right to pursue information, simply for the sake of informing the public, but they cannot act on that wish. No public official has any lawful power to obstruct, threaten, or persecute the press. This makes sure checks and balances can be upheld, and the people can make informed decisions about who should hold office.

An investigation might be obstructed through the chain of command, but the press can reveal such abuses. That, then, allows prosecutors to work around officials involved in abuses of office, and pursue their law enforcement mandate.

Without a free press, democracy cannot exist. Safeguards against persecution of the press are necessary to ensure the people are well served by those who hold public office. Protection of the free press implies a broader principle, however: the right of the people to know what must be known to ensure good governance.

It is not only the press that is protected. The First Amendment also explicitly guarantees the people’s right never to see the right to seek redress for grievances diminished by an act of Congress. This implies that the executive branch also cannot use the resources given to it by Congress to diminish the right to seek redress for grievances.

Whistleblowers enjoy special protection from having their identity revealed, when a high official might be in a position to carry out punitive acts against them, including to use their platform to broadcast threats or elicit assistance in their persecution. No public official has any lawful power to participate in the harassment of witnesses in any official proceeding at any stage.

The right of the people to seek redress for grievances—including against officials abusing their office for any corrupt purpose—supersedes any desire of those in power to use their office in a way that benefits themselves or their allies. We should be treating the shocking controversies of this historical moment as reason to secure that standard for now and for generations to come.

Democracy Witness is making a new commitment, to identify threats to the freedom of information, to report what is known about them, including their apparent origins and beneficiaries, and to defend that essential freedom—the right to know—as a core requirement for the success of any and all experiments in democracy.

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