This year is a significant one for those of us in the news business. It is the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America.
The Constitution itself was ratified 203 years ago, and a yearlong nationwide celebration marked that bicentennial. However, not as much has been said this year to note the importance of the 200th anniversary of our country's first freedoms. But the anniversary is as important - if not more important - than that of the Constitution.
The First Amendment is rightly placed at the head of the Bill of Rights. It declares our country's basic freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
The First Amendment is a simple statement, but in its simplicity contains profound wisdom. It says: "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."
The First Amendment has set our country apart among all other nations as the leader in freedom. We have marked the path for everyone else to follow. It is gratifying in this bicentennial year to see the flames of freedom begin to burn more brightly in nations once deprived of such blessings.
Our basic freedoms have survived 200 years of challenge, and there is little doubt that that they will continue to flourish.
But nothing can be taken for granted. We in the media must be vigilant that no one tries to abridge our freedoms, and by the same token that we do not abuse the freedoms that we have been granted.
To note this significant anniversary year, the Gannett Foundation prepared a First Amendment calendar, a copy of which sits proudly on my desk. On the page for each day of the year appears a quotation about the First Amendment. Permit me to share a few of these, indicating the significance of this bicentennial year:"Freedom of the press translates into freedom of the people." - Helen Thomas
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." - John Milton
"Freedom of the press . . . is not just important to democracy, it is democracy." - Walter Cronkite
"If freedom of expression becomes merely an empty slogan in the minds of enough children, it will be dead by the time they are adults." - Ben Bagdikian
"A news reporter is not an attack dog. Not a lapdog. But a watchdog." - Dan Rather
"The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state, but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published." - Sir William Blackstone
"It is freedom of the press which ensures the survivability of all our other freedoms." - Richard Valeriani
"If sometimes we reporters err, if sometimes our editorialists bluster wrongheadedly, that's a small price to pay for the vitality, the variety, the yeasty and never-ending debate from which we grow and think and flourish, without Big Brother peering over our shoulder." - Mike Wallace
"A free press can of course be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad." - Albert Camus
"Newspapers provide more useful and less expensive public services than any other institution in our society." - James H. Ottaway
"The only thing worse than bad taste on your (the media's) part would be for us to start to meddle in your First Amendment right to exercise your bad taste." - Sen. Joseph R. Biden
"The free press is to American democracy what yeast is to bread. Without it, this system of government we prize falls flat." - Thomas WinshipMay we cherish during this anniversary year our basic freedoms and be grateful that our Founding Fathers knew what they were talking about, and have passed on to us the duty and responsibility to perpetuate what they began so well.