Freedom of Expression in 2013: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Jefferson knew that freedom of expression exists on a continuum, anchored by tyranny at one extreme and liberty at the other. He understood that nothing on that continuum is static, and that governments, left unchecked, will swing the pendulum towards tyranny. He believed a vibrant free press is a vital tool for citizens to hold government accountable and to preserve their liberty.

Two hundred twenty six years later, Jefferson’s ideas are relevant on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as Europeans fight to expand liberty and Americans experience a shift in the traditional balance between our press and government.

On June 18, a group of Belarusian journalists appealed to the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education for support to establish and maintain an independent press in their country. They reported that their government suppresses broadcasts, and it is nearly impossible to work as an independent journalist. They argued that they are the only conduit for citizens to receive the information that they need to try to hold their government accountable. They concluded that without a vibrant independent press, they find themselves “more or less in the situation of a dictatorship.” These journalists are fighting to establish a bulwark against a repressive regime. In so doing, they are actively trying to push freedom of expression towards the liberty end of the continuum.

In the United States, the First Amendment protects freedom of expression, but the decline of the mainstream media has changed the traditional balance between press and government. Faced with technological changes and a crippling recession, publishers have cut their budgets and workforces, reducing the quality and quantity of reporting. Maryland, where I have worked in and around government for nearly a decade, provides a clear example of this shift. The State House press corps is a shadow of its former self, as media outlets have reduced or eliminated coverage and veteran reporters have gone in search of greener pastures. Those who have stayed have fewer resources at their disposal, and investigative journalism has all but disappeared. These changes, coupled with the rise of social media, have given government officials greater latitude to create and disseminate their own narratives. While the United States is not drifting towards a more repressive form of government, its citizens have lost a degree of liberty as the mainstream media has declined.

A handful of innovative citizens and journalists are experimenting with new models for broadcasting the news, but they lack the circulation, credibility and resources that newspapers once had. They are making valuable contributions to the political dialogue and a valiant effort to promote accountability in the political system, but it is too soon to assess the impact of their work.

Thomas Jefferson would have seen kindred spirits in the reporters from Belarus and would have been alarmed by the drift underway in America. The Belarusian experience serves as a reminder that freedom is often hard-earned, while the American experience serves as notice that freedoms, once earned, are not guaranteed.

Patrick H. Murray, Director of State Affairs for Johns Hopkins University, is a Summer 2013 European Marshall Memorial Fellow. His views do not represent an official position of Johns Hopkins or its affiliated institutions.