When the Constitution was adopted, many people strongly opposed it because the document contained no Bill of Rights to safeguard certain basic freedoms. They especially feared that the new powers granted to a central government might be interpreted to permit the government to curtail freedom of religion, press, assembly, and speech. In response to an overwhelming public clamor, James Madison offered a series of amendments to satisfy citizens that these great liberties would remain safe and beyond the power of government to abridge.
Madison proposed what later became the First Amendment in three parts, two of which are set out below, and one of which proclaimed:
“The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.” (Emphasis added.)
The amendments were offered to curtail and restrict the general powers granted to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches two years before in the original Constitution. The Bill of Rights changed the original Constitution into a new charter under which no branch of government could abridge the people’s freedoms of press, speech, religion, and assembly…
Madison and the other Framers of the First Amendment, able men that they were, wrote in language they earnestly believed could never be misunderstood: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press. . . .” Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.
In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly…
The word “security” is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.
– an excerpt from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s majority decision in The New York Times Co. v. The United States (1971) (emphasis added), the case dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post—Spielberg in civics teacher mode—which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, among others, and serves as a poignant celebration of the free press in American society, particularly during the Nixon administration, but with clear and intentional parallels to the present moment; though this Supreme Court case only plays a small role in The Post, which is really about The Washington Post’s owner, Kay Graham (Streep), who demonstrated great courage in publishing the Pentagon Papers after The New York Times’ was stalled by an injunction, because doing so required her to risk her reputation and fortune in the name of truth and freedom.