"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or of 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."
This First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is attracting more attention these days because of events that have taken place in recent weeks or are about to occur.
First, there was the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed at least 167 children and adults.
Next, there was the celebration on Wednesday of "World Press Freedom Day."
Lastly is the 50th anniversary of Germany's unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945, which will be remembered and celebrated in many observances during the next several days in Europe, the U.S. and Russia.
Various scholars have differing opinions concerning which of the Constitution's amendments are the most significant or important. However, the First Amendment is one that sets this country apart from most every other country in the world with the freedoms guaranteed to its citizens.
Since the founding of this country, the U.S. has been looked upon by the rest of the world as the "home of the free," and this commitment to these freedoms has caused this country to become engaged in numerous wars to help others in other parts of the world to enjoy similar freedoms.
Now, due to a combination of events, there are some, including President Bill Clinton, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, some Republicans and Democrats in Congress and many citizens throughout the country, who think it is all right to nibble away at some of these freedoms in order to "protect" the country and its citizens from various dangers and dangerous people.
The bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building triggered many suggestions that in order for the government to be able to infiltrate dangerous organizations, it should have the right to engage in activities that invade the privacy and rights guaranteed to all citizens of this country.
It would be difficult to imagine any rational individual thinking the Oklahoma City bombing was justified. However, should such a horrible action give the government the right to infringe on the freedoms this nation's citizens have enjoyed for more than 200 years?
Once exceptions are justified, where is the line to be drawn? What excuses could be offered to allow the government to violate one or more freedoms guaranteed to U.S. citizens?
World Press Freedom Day may seem relatively unimportant or just another of the almost endless number of "days" seeking special recognition for some particular event or occupation.
Press freedom, however, is terribly important and also sets this nation apart from the majority of countries around the world. In fact, American journalists enjoy greater press freedoms than those in any other country. The latest survey by Freedom House in New York shows 66 countries have varying degrees of a free press with more than 120 countries having only a partly free press. At the end of 1994, a record number of journalists -- 173 -- were in prison in 23 countries with 72 journalists killed in action in 1994.
To have a "free press," as outlined in a 1987 charter approved by representatives from 34 countries attending a world conference in London, the following conditions should exist:
"Censorship, direct or indirect, is unacceptable. Access to news and to news sources must not be restricted. States must not restrict the means of production. Frontiers must be open to journalists and news. Limiting who can practice journalism is wrong. Journalists must be secure in their persons. Where government media exist, they should have editorial independence."
Added to this is the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression."
The Oklahoma City bombing, however, has given some in government reason to suggest there might be times when such freedoms of expression are too critical, too incendiary or too shrill.
Clinton has spoken quite forcefully about "angry words" being broadcast on political talk shows and the suggestion that legislation should be introduced which would give the president the power to deem certain groups unacceptable. This is wrong! If such actions were to be approved, where would the line be drawn? It would open the door for greater government intrusion into group activity and the rights of individuals.
Far better to have some bad actors, some who abuse their rights, rather than to allow the government any excuse to try to control or censor the news. The dangers presented by a government that could control what can be written or spoken are far greater than any angry writer or radio talk show host.
This leads into this weekend's celebration of the allied victory in Europe over Hitler's Germany.
How much might the course of history have been changed if there had been a free press in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s? Would Hitler have been able to build his war machine? And would the people of Germany have accepted Hitler's leadership if they knew what their leaders and his insiders were doing? How many in Germany knew of the terrible concentration camps and the murders of millions of Jews?
If they did know, were they forced into silence by censorship, the threat of jail or perhaps even death?
There is considerable debate over whether President Clinton should be going to Moscow to help celebrate V-E Day with the leaders of a nation which has been so repressive of its people. Why didn't Clinton plan to be in England or France to commemorate the victory over Germany rather than to spend three days in Russia, hardly a "land of the free."
As noted in a recent Time magazine essay, "The U.S. maintains that countries aspiring to membership in NATO, in the European Community or in the wider community of developed nations must respect democracy, free enterprise and human rights. But Washington is notably passive in promoting freedom of the press ...
"Why should Americans care? Because if there is to be a world in which the U.S. can enjoy a measure of security and prosperity, the spread of democracy is essential. And democracy is impossible without a free press. Free and responsible, of course ...
"According to recent surveys, a majority of Americans believe that the media only get in the way of solving our problems. But a majority also believe that the press keeps powerful people from becoming too powerful."
As the essay notes, perhaps this should be the message of a free press, abroad and at home.
Also, perhaps this should be remembered when some in Washington, who obviously enjoy and want to protect their positions of power, look at the tragedy of Oklahoma City as a means to temper the rights of some to engage in harsh criticism of the role of government and the performance of some in government.
The Oklahoma City bombing must not be used by anyone as an excuse to impose any kind of control or censorship on a free press or the rights of individuals to express their ideas about government or any other subject.