Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Is all politics local? In making sure the Montclair Republican Club BILL OF RIGHTS COUNTDOWN to today’s election day had local relevance, conversations with New Jersey residents over the past ten weeks brought to mind these local First Amendment cases and concerns:

Freedom of Religion: does the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act impinge on the religious rights of citizens? Many religious individuals say yes: the act’s demands infringe on their religious values.

Freedom of Association: A landmark Supreme Court case originating in New Jersey is Dale vs. The Boy Scouts of America (2000), which reinforced that a private membership organization had the right to set and enforce its own membership standards, not to be abridged by other parties or the government.

Freedom of the Press: we referenced Montclair’s local public school flier distribution policy in our Second Amendment post, but perhaps the most optimistic, American, 21st century exercise of the First Amendment is the merging of technology and journalism in the creation of Baristanet, Essex County’s hyperlocal news outlet –  one of the first in the nation. Co-founded by Journalist Debra Galant and computer engineer Carl Bergmanson in 2004, Baristanet broke the fourth estate mould, and New Jersey has been, and can be, better for it. Bergmanson, who served as Mayor of Glen Ridge from 2004-2007 and was a Democratic primary candidate for New Jersey governor in 2013, has been very gracious and generous to share his thoughts on the First Amendment with the Montclair Republican Club:

Freedom of the Press: Bulwark against Tyranny

by Carl Bergmanson

As Americans, we often take for granted the protections afforded our natural rights by the Bill of Rights. We need only look to the many people deprived of these rights in many countries throughout the world to see that our forefathers were very wise to spell out these protections. These rights are the rights of all men and women; we should guard them jealously and reject any candidate, at any level of government and from any political party, who would attempt to undermine them in any way, and for any reason – no matter how “well intentioned”.

Freedom of the Press is an important one of those rights. You can debate which of the many freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights is the most important, but, in reality, they are all interdependent. Picking the most important is like picking the most important leg on the proverbial three-legged stool. This is especially true of the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech and Freedom to Peaceably Assemble are somewhat meaningless without Freedom of the Press. Freedom of the Press allows free speech to be heard – without it, one might as well be talking to a wall. Without the right to publicize an assembly, it would be difficult to attract much of a crowd. The reverse is true as well, as without free speech, or the right to freely assemble, there can be no free press.

One of the many blessings that modern life bestows on us is that with the internet, almost anyone can become a publisher – we launched with a few thousand dollars and a great idea – almost ten years later, our experiment is going strong, but only because we had the freedom to publish what we wanted to publish, and we knew we answered only to the reading public.

Certainly, no one would argue that the American press is perfect – far from it – but freedom of the press is vital to our liberty – without the free flow of information, elections are meaningless; an uninformed voter is a disenfranchised voter – only when voters have access to the various candidates’ ideas, qualifications and history can elections have any real meaning. It is no coincidence that Freedom of the Press is one of the first targets when dictators seize power – in fact, Press Freedom is kind of like a “canary in a coal mine” – show me someone looking to curtail Freedom of the Press, and I’ll show you someone with the heart of a tyrant.

Thank you, Carl.


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