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Grateful for the First Amendment. (President's Letter).

Many of us I suspect, have had a moment like this.

We are at our computers, writing an editorial taking issue with some governmental action. Suddenly there is this flash of gratitude that the First Amendment is protecting not only our words, but also our lives.

For me, one of those moments came in the mid-1980s. I had been at a White House press briefing for editorial writers on the Reagan administration's Central American policies. It was a fine day that included lunch with the president. I went in as a critic of the Reagan policies in Central America and I left as a critic. Back in Madison the next day, I was writing a column taking issue with the official line that had been laid on us.

Then it hit me. In some of the very countries that I was writing about, a person criticizing the government the way I was would be risking his or her life. I merely was risking a few angry phone calls from local Reagan supporters.

As I'm writing this column, the Committee to Protect Journalists has just issued its report on attacks on the press in 2001. It's well known, of course, that eight journalists lost their lives covering the war in Afghanistan. But some of the attacks were directly related to journalists whose work involved opinion in both broadcast and print.

The CPJ describes Candelario Cayona as "an outspoken radio commentator" on station DXLL in Zamboanga City in the Philippines. Among the targets of his commentary were local officials, the military, and Muslim separatist guerrillas. CPJ reports that at about 6 a.m. last May 30, as Cayona left on his motorcycle to go to work, three unidentified men gunned him down.

Eduared Markevich was the editor and publisher of Novy Reft, the local newspaper in the town of Reftinsky in Russia. The paper was frequently critical of local officials. In 1998, assailants broke into his apartment and beat him in front of his pregnant wife. In 2001, he was illegally detained in the local prosecutor's office after questioning the propriety of a contract a deputy prosecutor had entered into. On September 18, Markevich was found dead, shot in the back. His wife now continues his work as editor and publisher.

I'm inspired by the courage of these journalists and I'm grateful for the zone of protection -- both legally and physically -- that the First Amendment has given journalists in the United States. It's not that physical attacks on journalists -- even on opinion writers -- have not happened in this nation. But attacks are rare, and the culture around the First Amendment creates a broad expectation that people are allowed to criticize the government.

Even so, the protections that the First Amendment offers to democracy -- to say nothing of the legal cover it gives to editorial writers flaying a governmental action -- seem more tenuous now than ever.

When a cartoon by Ted Rall suggesting that some 9/11 widows were acting a bit selfishly sparked a huge outcry, former presidential candidate and current TV commentator Alan Keyes said in a column on the MSNBC website that "when serious and sustained attempts to undermine public opinion on a matter genuinely essential to national life cannot be resisted by other means, governmental action may be necessary."

We're putting a lot of emphasis within NCEW on the First Amendment this year because we live in an era when the public support for the freedoms it guarantees seems to be waning. Those of us in the opinion business understand the implications of weakening free press and free speech as we craft our next editorials against some outrageous government policy. But this constitutional protection is not just for us. It is for democracy.

When I sat at my computer that day ripping the Reagan policies in Central America, I felt no threat coming at me from the government, and I felt proud to live in a country where I could so freely criticize those in power. I hope all of us can find ways to share that part of our patriotic spirit with all our fellow citizens.

NCEW president Phil Haslanger is managing editor of The Capitol Times in Madison, Wisc. Contact him at philhasl@madison.com
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:708
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