The First Amendment of the Constitution is perhaps only second (no pun intended) to the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments in terms of the way it’s being trampled by local, state and federal government in the United States these days.
The First Amendment is different, however, in that it has a greater potential to affect us all — either as purveyors, or as consumers, of information. We don’t have the benefit of not caring because it only affects people we don’t like.
In the old days — as old people like me are wont to say — people who wanted to “publish” something had a relatively difficult task before them.
Forget the issues involved in building up a readership. Those problems continue to plague anyone who wants to publish today, from Air America to those who would enter “the traditional press” to bloggers. The problems facing pre-blog, pre-Internet, pre-computing days were much steeper than that. Technology was unsophisticated and expensive; compared to today, it was the Dark Ages even for printers until around the mid-1400s when Gutenberg invented the first printing press. Even after that, if an ordinary person wanted to have something printed, she was out of luck unless she could convince a printer to print it.
One of the drawbacks was that the narrow distribution of presses made it easy for anyone who wished to control the flow of information. And those in power did just that.
Without “the press” — which originally meant, of course, “the printing press” — it’s pretty much a sure bet that we, as a society, would not be where we are today. Other technologies would not be as advanced as they are. The invention of the press allowed for the widespread dissemination of knowledge, including medical knowledge, knowledge about agriculture and all other forms of technological know-how that has made our way of life possible. Without the press, there would likely have been no cars, no skyscrapers, no bridges on the order of the Golden Gate in San Francisco and definitely no Apple computers.
In the days of King George III, the press — now arguably meaning “the group of news publishers who owned printing presses” — were frequently arrested and/or subject to what we call “prior restraint” (being forbidden from publishing without some government official checking the story to make sure it was okay with them for you to publish it; you couldn’t publish until they reviewed it and you had permission). I say “arguably,” because the King not infrequently cracked down on publishers of books as well as “newspapers” or “gazettes.” And it didn’t just happen in the realm of King George III; the monarchs of other countries similarly controlled publication of things they didn’t like.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. —