Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century | By Lee C. Bollinger | Oxford University Press, 224 pages, $22.95
It is a good day when a leading university president takes the time to write a book lauding the First Amendment. It’s an even better day when that president is Columbia’s Lee Bollinger, and the driving thesis of the book is that the First Amendment will play a key role in the future exchange of global information.
In Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open, Bollinger reminds us that even though press freedoms are threatened by both political and economic forces, there is still a world of possibility created by technological advances. We are interconnected like never before. For information, at least, geographic borders are irrelevant. That means that free-press values—not to mention global protections for all journalists—can and should travel freely.
The first half of the book makes a case for why First Amendment values are worthy of being exported. In that sense, it is an admirable primer on the development of First Amendment law in this country over the last century. Bollinger begins with America’s longstanding aversion to government censorship, which has traditionally made our system the envy of journalists around the world. He outlines the laws that gave the press the right to invade private subjects, as long as the information disclosed was for the public good, or contained in public documents. The book surveys such related topics as the right of all citizens to attend trials, and the ability to hold the government accountable through our freedom of information laws. Bollinger also takes us through the regulatory schemes that control radio and television, rightly questioning the differing standards applied to these media.
It is, however, our libel and state secret laws that most interest the author in terms of his larger thesis.
For Bollinger, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is perhaps the most important Supreme Court decision of the modern era. This libel case, he suggests, “articulated the central rationale for—and the spirit of—the First Amendment.” It came before the Supreme Court in 1964, at the height of racial tensions in the South. Four years prior, the Times had published an advertisement that sought to raise funds for the legal defense of Martin Luther King, Jr. In describing the brutal behavior of police officers during student protests in Montgomery, Ala., the ad included several errors. The city’s police commissioner asked the paper to retract the ad—and when this request was not met, he filed suit and was awarded $500,000 in damages by an Alabama court.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, it was Justice William J. Brennan Jr., the single most important voice on First Amendment issues in the second half of the century, who wrote the opinion. Any errors by the press, he held, had to be considered against the backdrop of a national commitment to First Amendment values. Only in this way could we ensure that debate on public issues, especially those involving the government, would remain “uninhibited, robust and wide-open.” Tracing the history of American free speech back to 1801, Brennan raised the standard for actionable libel and erected a new bulwark of constitutional protections for the press.
As Bollinger sees it, Brennan’s reasoning in Sullivan led directly to the court’s decision in the Pentagon Papers case. In this 1971 case (which also involved The New York Times), the court concluded that there could be no stopping a news organization from publishing government secrets, even in wartime. Open debate was critical, unless the government could show actual harm to U.S. troops.
Many scholars have plumbed these landmark cases. What makes Bollinger inspiring is his effort to apply our national experience with the First Amendment to the international arena. Should we consider government funding as a way to sustain quality international newsgathering? Anticipating objections, the author is quick to remind readers that the BBC is funded to the tune of $4 billion annually, through a tax imposed on the sale of each television set in Great Britain. Few would argue that public funding has made the BBC anything but a first-class organization—indeed, one of the leading news institutions in the world.
Imagine if the U.S. had an equivalent institution. Such an enterprise would have enormous scope, and could embody the best of our First Amendment principles. Bollinger urges us not to be discouraged by our poor history of government-supported journalism (which has often been nothing but outright propaganda). A bad track record need not be a blueprint for the future, he insists, nor a deterrent to using our public funds to expand such initiatives as National Public Radio overseas.