11/25/10: Grateful for America’s freedoms

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

ONE ONLY has to look around to see the many things we have to be thankful for. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, independent and those in between, I think we can all agree we are thankful to live in the United States, where we have rights guaranteed to us by our Constitution, including the right to vote, the right to a trial by jury, the right to free speech and the right to bear arms.

The Bill of Rights, as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are generally known, have their roots in a Virginia document written several years earlier. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted by the Fifth Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776. It was incorporated into the Virginia constitution as Article I in 1830 and, while updated slightly, remains in effect to this day.

In addition to the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Declaration of Rights influenced the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

One right, which is included in the First Amendment to the Constitution, is one with which we are all familiar: freedom of the press. Without it, I would not be writing this column, nor would you be reading it. But that freedom did not always exist, nor does it exist everywhere today.

England used to employ a system of licensing publications, which John Milton argued amounted to censorship. Fifty years before the licensing ended, in his 1644 publication, Areopagitica, Milton advanced the notion that an individual is capable of using reason and can distinguish right from wrong but needs unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow man. The work is considered one of the milestones in defense of press freedom. Today the United Kingdom is ranked in the top 20 countries with the most free press.

In some countries, a journalist can be jailed simply for using the wrong word or the wrong photo. Reporters Without Borders tracks freedom of the press around the globe each year. The group reports that more than one-third of the world’s citizens live in countries where there is no freedom of the press. Most of these countries do not embrace democracy and are limited to state-run news organizations. Among the worst offenders are North Korea, Libya, Iran and Eritrea.

While the United States is ranked in the top 20, it is not without warts. Freedom of the Press, another organization tracking the topic, raises concerns about the concentration of media ownership and the continuing loss of audience by the traditional media. That decline in coverage, the organization reports, has only been partially offset by cable TV and Internet journalism.

The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and included freedom of the press. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” Declaring it, of course, does not make it so.

Just this past May, the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act was signed by the president. This bipartisan measure is intended to promote press freedom around the world and requires the Department of State to look at restrictions on news media and press intimidation as a part of its annual human rights review of each country. What effect, if any, this will have on parts of the world where the press is not free remains to be seen.

Thomas Jefferson said, “The press [is] the only tocsin of a nation. [When it] is completely silenced… all means of a general effort [are] taken away.” I am thankful for a lot of things, among them the freedom of the press that we enjoy as citizens of the United States.