Our opinion: Press freedom is a Vermont value


How essential is a free press to Vermont? So essential that when Vermont's founding fathers convened upstairs at Elijah West's Windsor Tavern in July of 1777 to agree to a Constitution for the brand-new Vermont Republic, they specifically protected it by name.

It's right there, in what would eventually become Article 13 of the Vermont Constitution: "That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing and publishing their sentiments, therefore, the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained."

That was 10 years before the U.S. Constitution was written and ratified, and 14 years before the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment guaranteeing free speech and freedom of the press was ratified. As has often been the case ever since, Vermont led the way in the commitment to liberty and freedom.

It's a different story these days with Donald Trump, who — either through hubris, ignorance of the responsibilities of his office or a combination of both — has made it a hallmark of his presidency to run roughshod over the sacred traditions and norms that undergird the machinery of our democracy.

Of these, one of the most sacrosanct is that the American press be able to operate freely and be protected from interference by government. Only in such a context can a properly informed electorate, charged with the responsibility of governing itself, act as a check upon the overreach of its chosen leaders. If there were an instruction manual for would-be dictators, despots and tyrants, the eradication of a free press would constitute Chapter One.

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Thanks to Trump's behavior in office, the American experiment in democracy finds itself in unprecedentedly perilous times. Since his ascent to power, a free press has become more central to our nation's survival than ever, and has come under attack as never before.

Clearly the president understands the value of a free press, or he would not be so bent on undermining it. Even before his election, he began laying the groundwork to erode media credibility in the eyes of the same public it exists to serve. "Fake news" — Mr. Trump's simplistic mantra designed to cast a shadow of disbelief upon any criticism of him or his policies — has gained popularity in large sections of the land, clearing the path for an even more insidious accusation, that the press is the "enemy of the people."

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As we consider these continuing attacks and the danger facing our democracy, we are reminded that 241 years ago, Vermont stood its ground and signed a constitution that guaranteed freedom of the press, even as war threatened its very existence. In the days before the Windsor convention, forces commanded by Gen. John Burgoyne had reclaimed the vital stronghold of Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y. They found their way to Vermont soon after, catching up with the Americans fleeing Ticonderoga at Hubbardton on July 6, 1777.

"The business (of ratifying a constitution) being new, and of great consequence, required serious deliberation. The Convention had it under consideration when news of the evacuation of Ticonderoga arrived, which alarmed them very much, as thereby the frontiers of the State were exposed to the inroads of the enemy," wrote Ira Allen, who was there. "The family of the President of the Convention, as well as those of many other members, were exposed to the foe."

"In this awful crisis the Convention was for leaving Windsor, but a severe thunderstorm came on, and gave them time to reflect, while other members, less alarmed at the news, called the attention of the whole to finish the Constitution," Allen wrote. "This was done and the Convention then appointed a Council of Safety to act during recess, and the Convention adjourned."

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It hardly seems a coincidence that five weeks later — on Aug. 16, 1777 — Vermonters and their allies won an important victory near Bennington, one that set the stage for Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga. History tells us time and again that freedom is contagious. But first, you must insist upon it.

When you think about the people who are telling you a free press is your enemy, ask yourself: Why do they insist that is so? And if the press is your enemy, who would be your friend? Who would tell you the truth about your government, your police, your schools and your environment? Who would speak truth to power, and allow you to do the same?

Granted, the press is not above reproach. Reporters and editors are human beings, with all their attendant failings — but they revere accuracy and strive mightily to uncover and disseminate the truth. On the occasions when they are wrong, they see it as a professional imperative to publish a correction, not only because it is the right thing to do but because the credibility of journalism depends on being accountable to the readers it serves. The president could use a lesson in the same kind of public accountability.

Justice Hugo Black, who was known for his judicial opinions on the First Amendment, wrote, "The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government." Trump, using the power of his bully pulpit, is attempting to perform an end-run around government censorship by conditioning the news-consuming public to hold the press in contempt and to dismiss its product as biased. He has demonized journalists and attacked their allegiance to flag and country, going so far as to whip his willing crowds into a frenzy that actually puts reporters at physical risk for simply doing their jobs.

For the sake of a republic already riven with discord, these attacks must be met with appropriate resistance at every opportunity. The press is not the "enemy of the people." It isn't even the enemy of Trump, much as he encourages his followers to believe the opposite. It is the enemy of darkness, corruption, opaqueness in the performance of public service and any other malign influence that would seek to block the unfettered transmission of information upon which the viability of this nation depends.


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