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Democracy and Free Press


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“I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.”
-Napoleon Bonaparte


A dictator like Napoleon Bonaparte would have every reason to fear a free press, because it arms citizens with essential information-the truth, which repressive regimes fear and which is the vital link in a democracy between them and the voting booth.

An intimidated, uninformed and disinterested public would be the predictable result of the loss of freedom of the press, along with sharply decreased voter participation; simply put, the loss of this fundamental freedom would be disastrous for the United States.

According to one story, one of Napoleon’s contemporaries visited the United States as a guest of President Thomas Jefferson. Upon seeing a Federalist newspaper article lying on a table that heavily criticized Jefferson’s policies, the visiting Frenchman remarked that the writer of the article should be punished. Jefferson responded calmly, “ Sir, you may take the newspaper back with you to France, because that is the difference between my country and yours.” The president, a great believer in freedom of the press, was telling his visitor that without this right, American would not be the country that it is. This was true in 1800, and is equally true today. The freedom to publish facts, even opposing opinions about those facts, is essential for informed voters to participate in a democracy.

Imagine this scenario: the President of the United States, being criticized for his foreign policy and fearful of his party losing control of the White House and both houses of Congress, attempts to make it illegal to voice disapproval of him or his actions. While this might be unthinkable today, we often take our freedom of the press lightly. Unfortunately, the scenario described above has occurred in America.
In 1798, Anti-Federal political leader, Matthew Lyon, also known as “Ragged Matt, the Democrat”, was convicted of publishing a letter in his newspaper against President Adams, the purpose of which was determined to be “to stir up sedition and to bring the president and the government of the United States into contempt.” The passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 made such writings illegal. The Federalists ran the government, with control of the White House, Supreme Court, and Congress. The Federalists could carry out their policies with little interference. Thus, the safeguards previously put into place became ineffective. “Ragged Matt, the Democrat” was jailed for four months and paid a $1,000 fine. Publication of the truth about candidates, issues, and elections can only take place when there is no fear of reprisal. The Federalists only wanted to keep journalists and candidates quiet, so they passed a law making it illegal for them to voice their opinions. They didn’t want to lock everyone away; they wanted to silence a few influential leaders of the opposition press so that the election of 1800 would be in their favor.
As it turned out, the Federalist plan didn’t work in 1800 and Republican, Thomas Jefferson won the presidency. It is my sincere hope that what happened in 1798 never happens again. However, we as citizens must remember that we share in this responsibility as well. Through voting, we determine how the government operates. There is a very significant statement inscribed on the front of the state capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen." One of the vital elements of this “watchfulness” is a free press, which helps the voter by serving as his eyes and ears. Without this, a democracy is deaf and blind, and voting little more than a formality.
"This will certify that the above work is completely original."
Candace Faith Moberly








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