Acton Institute Powerblog

Freedom of the Press and the Free Society

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Photo Credit: Washington Post

In a time when U.S. journalism too often feels dominated by infotainment on television and blog/opinion pseudo-news in print and on the internet, it is sad to see instances of real journalism, seeking to act as a check on corruption in the public sphere, being suppressed by that very corruption. But such has been the case, recently, in Ferguson, Mo.

In the wake of the death of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown, shot by Ferguson police (according to witnesses with his arms raised in the air), protests and riots have erupted in the suburb.

In the midst of this, many reporters gathered to cover the story. On Wednesday, however, two reporters would become the story. Wesley Lowrey of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post were arrested while they were taking advantage of the free WiFi at a local McDonald’s. Lowrey tells his story:

Initially, both Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post and I were asked for identification. I was wearing my lanyard, but Ryan asked why he had to show his ID. They didn’t press the point, but one added that if we called 911, no one would answer.

Then they walked away. Moments later, the police reemerged, telling us that we had to leave. I pulled my phone out and began recording video.

An officer with a large weapon came up to me and said, “Stop recording.”

I said, “Officer, do I not have the right to record you?”

He backed off but told me to hurry up. So I gathered my notebook and pens with one hand while recording him with the other hand.

As I exited, I saw Ryan to my left, having a similar argument with two officers. I recorded him, too, and that angered the officer. As I made my way toward the door, the officers gave me conflicting information.

One instructed me to exit to my left. As I turned left, another officer emerged, blocking my path.

“Go another way,” he said.

As I turned, my backpack, which was slung over one shoulder, began to slip. I said, “Officers, let me just gather my bag.” As I did, one of them said, “Okay, let’s take him.”

Multiple officers grabbed me. I tried to turn my back to them to assist them in arresting me. I dropped the things from my hands.

“My hands are behind my back,” I said. “I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.” At which point one officer said: “You’re resisting. Stop resisting.”

That was when I was most afraid — more afraid than of the tear gas and rubber bullets.

As they took me into custody, the officers slammed me into a soda machine, at one point setting off the Coke dispenser. They put plastic cuffs on me, then they led me out the door.

I could see Ryan still talking to an officer. I said: “Ryan, tweet that they’re arresting me, tweet that they’re arresting me.”

He didn’t have an opportunity, because he was arrested as well.

While historically there have been some shifting interpretations over our first amendment right to freedom of the press, none would allow for such obstruction and harassment.

John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin wrote, in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Art. XVI), “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth.”

It is common for supporters of a free society to focus on issues of religious freedom, limited government, and so on, but the events in Ferguson should remind us of the vital role of a free press as well.

Indeed, I would argue that at its best journalism has a moral calling. In a way somewhat analogous to ancient prophets, priests, and monastics who stood up to state power, so too reporters fulfill a necessary duty to the common good in exposing corruption, reporting current events, and disseminating reliable information.

It is easy to be cynical when the many failings of our news media are so often exposed and ridiculed by the likes of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report or parodied by the Onion. Just like any other calling or sphere of society, the press can be corrupted, too, if it is not ordered toward the common good and does not strive to be accurate and objective. Liberty of the press, too, is meant to be an ordered liberty.

That said, when reporters are fulfilling that calling, it is no small shame to see them impeded by officers of the state. “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state,” indeed. And we ought not to take it lightly when that liberty is so obstructed.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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