The First Amendment


By ROBERT G. SPROUL, President, University of California

Radio broadcast, American Newspaper Week, National Broadcasting Company, San Francisco, October 8, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 89-90.

THE United States of America is the end product of the work of millions of men and women for whom democracy has been at once a dearest possession and a continuing objective. Much of our history was written. in the blood and sweat and tears of common men long before Winston Churchill electrified the people of Britain, and of the world, with those simple, trenchant words. The record shows clearly—he who runs away may read it— that we Americans, drawn from a hundred various and conflicting stocks and nationalties, have learned to live together not only in harmony, but also in dignity and peace. It shows, too, that the four freedoms are neither the discovery of the man who most recently voiced them, nor unattainable ideals. Through one hundred and sixty-seven years they have held true for most of our people most of the time. When, in America, has there not been, in greatest measure, freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom from fear, freedom from want? The farthest advance in the agelong struggle of man toward these freedoms has been made here on this North American continent, in these United States of ours. I do not boast* I speak by the book, by the statistics on the millions from any lands who have gladly come here, not to exploit our natural resources but to live permanently, to make their homes, and to rear their children as Americans. All the eager and hopeful of the world, if I read the record correctly, have looked longingly to America, and countless thousands have translated their hopes into reality.

During the course of one hundred and sixty-seven years we have evolved a unique form of human society on this continent. It is worth preserving. Never before in human history, has a whole nation with one mind declared as its ideal a democratic republic which knows no permanent class distinctions. Never before in the long history of mankind have education and opportunity been offered to all a nation's people without regard to hereditary privilege. Such a social order is worth defending. In vain we Americans have desired peacefully to develop still further the implication of this fundamental philosophy on which we have builded our nation. For this we are now fighting on many foreign fronts. For this we must fight also on the home front, sacrificing, producing, toiling to provide the military necessities, arms and food, and to nourish the morale of our troops and their allies through the successful functioning of our democratic processes.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which brought order out of chaos and a Republic out of loosely knit confederation of independent states, an anxious friend asked Benjamin Franklin, "Well, Mr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?" Franklin's response was simple and to the point. I command it to you tonight as a watchword for our times. Said Franklin, "We have a Republic, if we can keep it." One of the best ways to keep the American Republic is set forth in the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States in the words we all know: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press." I would direct your attention here to the coupling of these two: "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press." Universities are interested in both. Recent newspaper criticism of the University of California in connection with a Writers' Congress would indicate that the press is interested only in Its own freedom. I can only hope and believe that this is Hot the considered judgment of thinking newspaper men, but the irritated reaction of sorely tried men to certain groupsand individuals among us, such as the Communists, who abuse the freedoms given them under our law.

For this freedom of the press is so important that we do well in this American Newspaper Week to spend some time in an analysis of its meaning and a consideration of the way in which it is intricately woven into the fabric of our society. Indeed I do not see how an immense democratic republic such as ours could exist without the free newspaper. Town meetings are an excellent mechanism for spreading information and discussing political issues, provided the town is small enough, but it is 254 years since the American people found that town meetings were not sufficient for their needs. I say 254 years because in the year 1689 the first newspaper in America, a Boston news sheet, appeared on the streets, with the somewhat extended title, The Present State of the New English Affairs. This was followed a year later by a second sheet, Public Occurrences, both Foreign and Domestick. Both of these newspapers had extremely short lives. Both were suppressed after the first issue, the second because it contained "reflections of a very high nature." But they were soon succeeded by others, which sprang up as naturally as mushrooms after rain. Most of these helped to establish the noble American tradition of honest journalism—a tradition which led Thomas Jefferson to declare "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." This is an extreme statement, but there is no doubt about the contribution that free American newspapers have made to the growth and health of our society.

This is not to say that the American newspaper is perfect or in imminent danger of becoming so. There are unfortunately too many instances of slanted news, of cloth cut to fit a prearranged pattern, of editorial bias parading through the news columns in false wig and store teeth. There is, too, the matter of news emphasis, of playing one story up and another down, which is as debatable as the medieval problem of the number of angels that can dance on the point of a pin. Long experience with the amateurs who conduct college newspapers, and who violate in the practices of their news columns all the ideals for which they contend in their editorials, has conditioned me, I hope, to accept such offenses with understanding rather than with Jovean wrath. For some of these enthusiasms which spill over from the editorial page onto the front pages are very compelling and very useful. Such no doubt were the epic battle against Boss Tweed which began with a story in the New York Times, and the destruction more recently of the Pendergast machine in Missouri. Nor should it be forgotten that newspapers were in the vanguard of the fight against slavery, and later against the Ku Klux Klan, against lynching, and most recently against the venality of the Huey Long regime in Louisiana. Nor will these examples close the chapter, I predict, for there remains still much opportunity for free enterprise in the areas where politics operate and bosses reign.

Newspapers are sometimes charged, too, with being slaves to their advertisers and their wealthy owners. This is like the oft-hinted charge that universities are slaves to politicians, if they are state universities, or to vested interests if they are private universities. No doubt there is some element of truth in all these statements but only what the chemists call a trace. The whole truth is that both newspapers and universities are professional fields and that those who work in them, by and large, simply will not tolerate die prostitution of their professional standards. Nor should it be forgotten that the financial independence provided by advertisers gives our American newspapers the political freedom which a subsidized press can never enjoy. The fourth estate of unhappy France before the downfall is a case in point. French newspapers did not enjoy economic independence, and as a consequence had to rely on direct subsidies from political parties, from the government, or even from foreign powers. The inevitable result was a loss of integrity which produced widespread cynicism among readers. Another case in point is the radical press of the United States, which earns its subsidies by unfailing distortion of the facts, consistent coloring of news, immoderate reliance upon personal abuse, and gross misrepresentation in lieu of simple truth and sound argument.

American newspapers may kowtow to advertisers by publishing too frequently items and photographs of their wives and daughters on the society pages; but this is a benign rather than a malignant tumor and I do not believe it spreads generally to other parts of the paper. After all, advertisers need the newspapers quite as much as the newspapers need advertisers, and editors and publishers are quite bright enough to realize this. Personally, I have found American newspapers eager to print the facts, to print them as soon as they become apparent, and to print them with as much objectivity as ordinary humans normally attain. Of course, the facts are gathered and written up by different people, who give to them different emphases and different interpretations, but in the main they are accurate, they are plainly put, and they are clearly understandable to the reader. Most striking evidence in support of this statement is the war news that comes to us today, particularly through newsgathering associations supported by the newspapers of the United States. Foreign correspondents in this war have performed amazing feats of courage and professional skill. They have flown in combat planes, groped their way down the slanting decks of sinking battleships, and shared the foxholes of damp New Guinea and dusty Sicily. Not a few have lost their lives in the effort to bring the war vividly to the eyes of the American citizen at his breakfast table. All have brought the news as they saw it, without coloring even from the government under which they operate.

In the light of their splendid record in many fields over many years the American newspaper may be forgiven, even by me, if it occasionally wanders from the path of consistency and attacks other institutions of American life for the exercise of the same freedom which it so jealously defends for itself—freedom to open university campuses to congresses and individuals as a newspaper opens its columns to whatever it pleases, including advertisements of Earl Browder and the Communist Party. It is significant that the Frist Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, with a reference to which these remarks began, combines freedom of religion, freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom of the press. You cannot have one of these without having all. You cannot successfully defend the freedom of newspapers if you do not also defend, and vigorously, the freedom of universities. The experience of Germany shows what happens when you play them one against the other. There the press was encouraged to defame the universities; the professors and the clerics were stimulated to attack the press; and all went down in a common catastrophe. Let us not court similar disaster in the United States. It is a military axiom that when the flank is turned the whole body must fall back to escape destruction. So it is with the freedoms of America; a successful attack on one means eventual retreat for all. That is why I am here tonight speaking in behalf of the newspapers. They serve well the freedoms of the First-Amendment. From those freedoms the universities are determined to make no retreat. We are equally determined to speak and fight for the freedom of other institutions, and not least for the continuing freedom of the American newspaper.