WV Press InSight Videos

Free press’ battle is long fought

Sunshine Week
Sunshine Week

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the founders fighting to break from England in the late 1700s, a free press was essential to a free people.

James Madison, who drafted the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, had these things to say about the issue: “Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.”

And, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

The First Amendment Center, a nonprofit devoted to First Amendment issues, explains, “Madison considered information to be the equivalent of knowledge, or at least the prerequisite to knowledge. It seems clear he felt that, beyond its intrinsic value for the individual and society, knowledge was a prerequisite to a truly representative government.

“In other words, the sharing of information places the governors and the governed on an equal footing in the democratic process. In Madison’s view, a functioning and fair government depends on a free flow of information — from the government to the people, as well as from the people to the government.”

The First Amendment was challenged fairly quickly in 1798. One of Madison’s fellow founders, President John Adams, approved the Alien and Sedition Acts which, among other things, restricted speech critical of the government.

Now, more than 200 years later, press freedom faces new challenges here in West Virginia…

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