As we gather to celebrate Independence Day, it’s a good time to reflect
on how our most fundamental freedoms have served this nation well.
It’s an even better time to think about what would happen if those
liberties were taken away.
Sadly, the latter doesn’t take much imagination in 2022. Your closest
video screen will show you scenes of Russian troops pummeling
Ukraine with the support of a majority of the Russian people.
The Russian public has been told that their country is doing noble work
ferreting out “Nazis” and that the West is engaged in its usual
persecution of Russia and its people. Surveys say most Russians believe
In times of war, people always want to see their government as the
good guys, but it’s still a little hard to grasp how that many people can
be so thoroughly misled.
That’s the power of the Vladimir Putin playbook. The Russian president
quickly and with little opposition eliminated the freedoms of speech
First, Putin bandied around allegations of “fake news,” undermining
domestic news media that had far more latitude than their Soviet
Then he coordinated a plan with the national legislature to pass a law
imprisoning those who “lied” about the war, including even calling it a
war. Russian media of integrity had to close up shop, and international
journalists in Russia had to temper their reporting.
That left the internet as the one avenue for Russians to learn the truth
about their country’s misdeeds. Putin then banned social media outlets
and sharply limited access to international news sites.
In short order, the Russian people were isolated, left to believe the lies
of their government.
It took just weeks for Putin to wipe out freedoms of press, speech and
Could anything like that ever happen in the United States? As unlikely
as it may seem, there are some areas of concern.
After all, over the past 60 years, certain presidents from both parties
have been known to mislead the public about the purpose and progress
of wars. And the use of “fake news” claims to evade responsibility
began with politicians in this country, only to be adopted by totalitarian
leaders around the globe.
Today there are active efforts to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan,
the 1964 Supreme Court decision that made investigative reporting
viable in the United States. And there are many politicians, again of
both parties, who want to control how private social media companies
Do I believe that America could fall victim to something resembling the
Putin playbook? No. But it’s also no longer unthinkable.
It’s not a coincidence that the first step would-be dictators take is to
shut down the press. That eliminates questions and accountability,
both of which are anathema to those who abuse power.
There are some today who choose not to be informed, saying the
media are biased. Well, there are tens of thousands of media outlets in
this country, including manipulative cable channels, partisan sites that
masquerade as news providers and those sites that would entice us
with clickbait. But there are also many core news organizations of
integrity, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, PBS and
the very newspaper you’re reading right now. They’re the ones we
need to support with readership and subscriptions.
From the very beginning of this nation, Americans understood the
importance of a free press aggressively reporting on people in power.
In an era when newspapers were fiercely partisan and unfair, that first
generation of citizens still insisted on journalists being protected by the
That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the model was right there in 1776
in the document we celebrate this week.
The Declaration of Independence called out King George III, reporting a
list of injustices perpetrated by the mother country against its colonies.
We had “unalienable rights,” it said, and they were being violated.
Americans were no longer going to put up with this “long train of
abuses and usurpations.”
That is the same spirit with which America’s free press has exercised its
duties since 1791. Abolitionist newspapers took on slavery, suffragist
papers focused on injustices against women and news organizations
spanning centuries have reported on scandals, corruption and racial
We live in a highly polarized time, when it’s easy to dismiss the views of
those with whom we disagree and deride those who publish the facts
we don’t want to acknowledge.
We have to take care, though, that our internal political wars don’t turn
us away from the core principles contained in the Declaration of
We remain a free people and need to be vigilant in protecting our rights
and documenting the abuses in people in power, not just when the
other guy’s party is in office. That’s the real spirit of ’76.
Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center, a non-partisan
and non-profit center based at Middle Tennessee State University.