By Gary Truitt
There are lots of unique things about our country, but one of the most amazing is the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is amazing because never before had these 6 rights been put in one place, all at the same time, and been guaranteed by the force of law. Freedom of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly are liberties that have shaped our society, our history, and our government. This amendment’s rights are so basic that most people take them for granted and give their protection little thought.
October 21 – 27 was designated as Free Speech Week. This is a non-partisan, educational campaign drawing attention to the importance of free speech and freedom of the press. A good deal of controversy on these two issues has been generated as social media platforms are limiting what can and can’t be shared. President Trump made freedom of the press a campaign issue and continues to express his thoughts on the subject in weekly tweets.
Many people think this is a new issue brought about by the dominance of the 24-hour news channels with their never-ending appetite for drama and controversy or by social media which allows anyone with a computer or mobile device to share their thoughts with a world-wide audience. Actually, we have had this situation develop several times during our nation’s short history.
President Harry Truman would write blistering letters to the editor when newspapers gave his daughter, who was pursuing a professional singing career, bad reviews. President Woodrow Wilson used federal law enforcement agencies to silence both media and public criticism of his World War I policies. During the Cold War, journalists and private citizens from a variety of occupations were silenced if they expressed any communist or socialistic opinions. While the First Amendment did not prevent these things from happening, it did keep them from becoming permanent.
The amendment also gives citizens the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Farmers have benefited from this freedom several times. In 1794, the government imposed a tax on the bi-product of grain production: whiskey. Corn farmers petitioned for change; and the tax was eventually eliminated, after some unfortunate gunfire. The Grange movement developed in an effort to change government railroad regulations. In recent years, farmers have been successful in getting government regulators to change regulations regarding dust, water, school lunches, and kids working on the farm.
Agriculture has not been as successful on the state level. Pork producers in Florida, egg producers in California, and food packagers in Vermont have all lost to activist groups who have mounted misinformation campaigns resulting in restrictive regulations. Currently in several states, animal rights radicals are attempting to obtain legal rights for animals that are equivalent to human rights. This signifies the need for agriculture and ag media to use the first amendment to speak out and petition.
It is also vital that those in agriculture support the ag media. In a media environment that frequently sees the mainstream media getting it wrong on ag issues and even colluding with activist groups, a strong ag media is needed balance the public’s understanding of agriculture. Like the First Amendment, the U.S. agricultural system is unique in the world. It is a free market system and is not owned or controlled by the government. This is not the case on many nations, and it will take the protection of the First Amendment to keep it that way.