Op-Ed: Our History Compels Us: We Stand United For A Free Press

August 16, 2018 | by Hidden City Staff


An early Pennsylvania Gazette. Almost immediately, its publisher, Benjamin Franklin, began publishing it more than once a week.

It was, almost 300 years ago, on these streets, in this city, that Americans first began publishing news more than once a week. The relentless free, open, and honest press was begun. We don’t think of the event as part of the hidden history of Philadelphia, but a matter of the utmost importance–one of the most powerful acts of a free, and eventually self-governing people.

And so it matters when the President, whose powers and limits were also enumerated and proven here, on these streets, decides to intimidate, threaten, bully, silence, and undermine that press. And we, in alliance with the Institute for Nonprofit News, of which we are a longstanding member, won’t stand for it. We are a small, and rather focused, news organization and yet we take our mission with the utmost seriousness–if we didn’t you, the reader, wouldn’t trust us.

We are honored to be part of the INN and to publish the organization’s pointed defense of the free press, written by its executive director and CEO Sue Cross, on our pages. (The INN is a network of more than 170 independent news media, all nonprofit, nonpartisan, and dedicated to strengthening the sources of trusted news for thousands of communities.)

Dear Friends,

Today, the Institute for Nonprofit News joins journalists across the country in asking you, the public, to stand up for your rights to free speech and an open government.

This started as a campaign by the Boston Globe to ask the President of the United States to knock off attacking the news media. But the President’s attacks on the press aren’t ultimately about the press.

“The press” is just journalists who work as your eyes and ears in places you can’t be. The press is the people you send into rooms to witness what your government is doing and tell you about it.

Dictators and tyrants don’t want you in the room. Dictators throughout the course of history have tried to limit what their people know or create confusion about what is true. By sowing confusion or getting you to limit your information sources, dictators reap power and control.

Don’t be confused.

In the U.S., we are not a dictatorship. We are a democracy. A free, fact-based press was built right into the foundations of that when the First Amendment was adopted in 1791:

“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.”

Today, verbal and even physical attacks on media, police-state tactics and government secrecy are spreading with impunity throughout the country. In Denver and Milwaukee, police recently detained and harrassed nonprofit reporters and prevented them from doing their jobs. In Wausau, Wisconsin, officials routinely keep public documents out of the public’s hands–your hands. The same happens in East Lansing, San Diego, Oregon — and on and on. We hear reports month in month out, from the 170 nonprofit news media that are part of INN.

Attacks on nonprofit media are particularly cannibalistic. Nonprofit newsrooms are dedicated to public service. Their reporters and editors are public servants, with a mindset cops might find surprisingly close to their own. “Protect and serve” pretty well describes the motivations of most watchdog reporters.

It’s important to know that these attacks aren’t just launched against a national press, a liberal or conservative press, a commercial press.

They are against anyone who works to bring you fair, fact-based, objective accounts so that you have reliable information and can act on your constitutional rights–so that you can voice your stories, cast your votes, be informed, live freely and well.

Criticism of media is fine, and needed. But it’s different when government officials systematically tear down the free press because they don’t like the facts it reports. Then they are working to limit your ability to know what your government is doing.

Thirteen years after we adopted the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Tyler, “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

We’re not going to shut up. We’re going to keep reporting so that you can read what you want, make your own judgments, and question a government that works for you. That’s the basis of our freedom, our economy, our way of life.

So don’t be faked out by claims of fake news. It’s out there, no doubt. But so are many more reliable news sources dedicated to reason and truth. Dozens of public service newsrooms that commit to high ethical standards are listed in the INN member directory. Or commit to your local newspaper, radio newscast, television broadcaster. If you think an outlet’s coverage is off-base, reach out and question it, contribute news and commentary, point out a mistake when they make one. Reporters and editors want to hear from you.

The “news media” isn’t some monolithic thing. It’s a voice of your community, and you can be part of it. We hope you will. Because a free press doesn’t belong to the President. It belongs to you.


Soapbox gives readers, contributors, and staff of Hidden City Daily the opportunity to share their thoughts on topical issues with smart, engaging discussion. Have an idea for an op-ed? Drop us a line and join the conversation: editor@hiddencityphila.org



  1. Jim Clark says:

    “In the U.S., we are not a dictatorship”…….YET! If that useless dimwit Trump gets his way we will be!

  2. Davis says:

    Thank you for all you do.

  3. Marlies Singh says:


    I just want to thank you for taking this stand, you are obviously running the risk of losing some of your readers, but you are very right in claiming that Philadelphia history has an important place in the history of our free press.

    Best wishes,
    Marlies Singh

  4. JPS in NJ says:

    This “stand” is nonsense. The free press is not under attack. It is under well-deserved criticism. When so-called journalists act more like activists, they deserve a spanking. They say they’re “holding the President accountable”? Well, don’t be surprised when the President holds THE PRESS accountable!

    A free press must be responsible. The ideal of an informed electorate is not served when the big media skew nearly all their “reporting” to one side. More than 90% of big media coverage of Trump and his administration, if it’s positive or negative, it’s negative. I don’t even have to read more than the headline to see that a “report” is just another dump-on-Trump piece. The bias is so obvious and extreme.

    Trump himself made the point in a tweet. He said he wouldn’t do like the social media giants and try to shut down the press. E.g., CNN. He doesn’t advocate actually shutting down CNN. In fact, he watches them sometimes. He either watches–holding his nose–or he simply doesn’t watch.

    The free press is not under threat. But it richly deserves a corrective ass-kicking, because we voters are not being fairly served. Not at all! Me myself, I do not watch what I call “The Enemy of an Informed Electorate”. It’s leftist disinformation. It’s not worth my time. If the big media lose a lot of their audience, let them try something called “balanced, neutral reporting of news”. Let them do real news stories without the constant admixture of the reporters’ opinions.

    You’re not fooling us.

    1. Joseph J. Menkevich says:

      I advocate Free Thought, Free Speech, & I cherish My Rights to Read and Perceive Free Press.

      I am passionate about the defense of Free Press (even if by the use of arms & ammunition in the hands of a well regulated milita).

      The Right of Free Press is primary to those who continue to fight for the Right to Bear Arms.

      When the Free Press is lost – all other Rights will soon follow and disappear.

      John Stuart Mill said:

      “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. If all mankind were of one opinion and only one man against it, all mankind would have no more right to silence that one man than he, if he had the power, to silence all mankind.

      ‘And this position is maintained not solely or chiefly on the ground of injustice to the person holding the obnoxious opinion, but because the forcible suppression of it would do even greater injustice to those who conscientiously reject it.

      For if the opinion be true, its establishment and dissemination would benefit mankind; and even if it be false, it is equally important it should be freely made known, inasmuch as it would contribute to ‘the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by it’s collusion with error.’ 

      Besides, no man can certainly know that any opinion is true, so long as anything which can be said against it is not permitted to be presented and freely discussed.

      Liberty is the indispensable atmosphere of truth. Without it, truth will as surely languish and die …”

    2. Joseph J. Menkevich says:

      The New York Times just published a rare op-ed column from an anonymous author, titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” which blasts the president as erratic and amoral.


      Donald Trump (on Twitter) called it TREASON.

      Is the anonymous author protected, or will the Emperor have him arrested – then drawn & quartered?

  5. Billy Tibbetts says:

    The one sided reporting is why I stopped caring about the “news”. It’s all a show, from the overhyped snow storms, to the racial stories they push and to how they got the Trump will lose election coverage totally wrong. Sadly, it’s a dying media for many reasons, so I understand their need to push sensational stories for attention. But don’t be sad that you’re called out for doing it.

  6. Joseph J. Menkevich says:

    To All Advocates of Free Press and True American History:

    Anonymity & Freedom of Speech is Protected & Affirmed by the Supreme Court but the fight against corrupt “politicians” must continue.

    One may wonder why John Dickinson, the President of Pennsylvania, would write as a ghostwriter? For one explanation, please read the following
    OCTOBER TERM, 1994
    CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF OHIO No. 93-986. Argued October 12, 1994-Decided April 19, 1995

    (SCALIA, J., dissenting). In this case, however, the historical evidence indicates that Founding-era Americans opposed attempts to require that anonymous authors reveal their identities on the ground that forced disclosure violated the “freedom of the press.”
    For example, the earliest and most famous American experience with freedom of the press, the 1735 Zenger trial, centered around anonymous political pamphlets. The case involved a printer, John Peter Zenger, who refused to reveal the anonymous authors of published attacks on the Crown Governor of New York. When the Governor and his council could not discover the identity of the authors, they prosecuted Zenger himself for seditious libel. See J. Alexander, A Brief Narrative of the Case and Trial of John Peter Zenger 9-19 (S. Katz ed. 1972). Although the case set the Colonies afire for its example of a jury refusing to convict a defendant of seditious libel against Crown authorities, it also signified at an early moment the extent to which anonymity and the freedom of the press were intertwined in the early American mind.
    During the Revolutionary and Ratification periods, the Framers’ understanding of the relationship between anonymity and freedom of the press became more explicit. In 1779, for example, the Continental Congress attempted to discover the identity of an anonymous article in the Pennsylvania Packet signed by the name “Leonidas.” Leonidas, who actually was Dr. Benjamin Rush, had attacked the Members of Congress for causing inflation throughout the States and for engaging in embezzelment and fraud. 13 Letters of Delegates to Congress 1774-1789, p. 141, n. 1 (G. Gawalt & R. Gephart eds. 1986). Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts, moved to haul the printer of the newspaper before Congress to answer questions concerning Leonidas. Several Members of Congress then rose to oppose Gerry’s motion on the ground that it invaded the freedom of the press. Merriweather Smith of Virginia rose, quoted from
    the offending article with approval, and then finished with a declaration that “[w]hen the liberty of the Press shall be restrained … the liberties of the People will be at an end.” Henry Laurens, Notes of Debates, July 3, 1779, id., at 139. Supporting Smith, John Penn of North Carolina argued that the writer “no doubt had good designs,” and that “[t]he liberty of the Press ought not to be restrained.” Ibid. In the end, these arguments persuaded the assembled delegates, who “sat mute” in response to Gerry’s motion. Id., at 141. Neither the printer nor Dr. Rush ever appeared before Congress to answer for their publication. D. Teeter, Press Freedom and the Public Printing: Pennsylvania, 1775-83, 45 Journalism Q. 445, 451 (1968).
    At least one of the state legislatures shared Congress’ view that the freedom of the press protected anonymous writing. Also in 1779, the upper house of the New Jersey State Legislature attempted to punish the author of a satirical attack on the Governor and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) who had signed his work “Cincinnatus.” R. Hixson, Isaac Collins: A Quaker Printer in 18th Century America 95 (1968). Attempting to enforce the crime of seditious libel, the State Legislative Council ordered Isaac Collins-the printer and editor of the newspaper in which the article had appeared-to reveal the author’s identity. Refusing, Collins declared: “‘Were I to comply … I conceive I should betray the trust reposed in me, and be far from acting as a faithful guardian of the Liberty of the Press.'” Id., at 96. Apparently, the State Assembly agreed that anonymity was protected by the freedom of the press, as it voted to support the editor and publisher by frustrating the council’s orders. Id., at 95.
    By 1784, the same Governor of New Jersey, William Livingston, was at work writing anonymous articles that defended the right to publish anonymously as part of the freedom of the press. Under the pseudonym “Scipio,”
    ____Fast Forward by Passing over much of the text due to length____

    While, like JUSTICE SCALIA, I am loath to overturn a century of practice shared by almost all of the States, I believe the historical evidence from the framing outweighs recent tradition. When interpreting other provisions of the Constitution, this Court has believed itself bound by the text of the Constitution and by the intent of those who drafted and ratified it. It should hold itself to no less a standard when
    interpreting the Speech and Press Clauses. After reviewing the weight of the historical evidence, it seems that the Framers understood the First Amendment to protect an author’s right to express his thoughts on political candidates or issues in an anonymous fashion. Because the majority has adopted an analysis that is largely unconnected to the Constitution’s text and history, I concur only in the judgment.
    JUSTICE SCALIA, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting.
    supreme dot justia dot com/us/514/334/case dot html

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