Embrace American values ​​such as the free press

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  • Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit center based at Middle Tennessee State University.
  • We must protect our nation from Putin’s playbook and here’s how.

As we come together to celebrate Independence Day, it’s a good time to reflect on how well our most basic freedoms have served this nation.

It’s an even better time to think about what would happen if those freedoms were taken away.

Unfortunately, the latter doesn’t take much of the imagination in 2022. Your nearest video screen will show you scenes of Russian troops striking Ukraine with the support of a majority of the Russian people.

The Russian public was told that their country was doing a noble job of ferreting out “Nazis” and that the West was indulging in its usual persecution of Russia and its people. Polls indicate that most Russians believe it.

In times of war, people always want to see their government as the good guy, but it’s still a little hard to understand how so many people can be so misled.

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How Putin’s Playbook Works

That’s the power of Vladimir Putin’s playbook. The Russian president quickly and with little opposition eliminated freedom of speech and the press.

First, Putin launched allegations of “fake news,” undermining the domestic news media which had far more leeway than their counterparts in the Soviet Union.

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. Upright Russian media had to shut down and international journalists in Russia had to temper their reporting.

This left the internet as the only way for Russians to learn the truth about their country’s wrongdoings. Putin then banned social media and severely limited access to international news sites.

In a short time, the Russian people were isolated, left to believe the lies of their government.

It took only a few weeks for Putin to annihilate the freedoms of the press, of expression and of dissent.

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Following the path of Russia is not unthinkable

Could something like this happen in the United States? As unlikely as that may seem, there are areas of concern.

Meggan Sullivan shouts (center), along with thousands of abortion rights protesters, against the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v.  Jackson's Women's Health Organization outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on June 24, 2022. The court ruling overturns the 50-year-old Roe v.  Wade who established the legal right to abortion in the country.

After all, over the past 60 years, some presidents of both parties have been known to mislead the public about the purpose and course of wars. And the use of “fake news” to evade accountability began with politicians in this country, to be adopted by totalitarian rulers around the world.

Today, there are active efforts to overturn New York Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court decision that made investigative journalism viable in the United States. And there are many politicians, again from both parties, who want to control how private social media companies are run.

Do I believe America could fall victim to something akin to Putin’s playbook? No. But that’s no longer unthinkable either.

It is no coincidence that the first step that would-be dictators take is to shut down the press. It eliminates questions and accountability, both of which are anathema to those who abuse power.

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Americans have always understood the power of the free press

There are those today who choose not to be informed, saying that the media is biased. Well, there are tens of thousands of media outlets in this country, including manipulative cable channels, partisan sites that pose as news providers, and sites that would lure us in with clickbait.

But there are also many honest news organizations, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, PBS, and the paper you’re reading right now. They are the ones we need to support with readership and subscriptions.

From the beginning of this nation, Americans understood the importance of a free press that reported aggressively on those in power. At a time when newspapers were fiercely partisan and unfair, this first generation of citizens still insisted that journalists be protected by the First Amendment.

This should not surprise us. After all, the model was there in 1776 in the document we are celebrating this week.

The Declaration of Independence challenges King George III, reporting a list of injustices perpetrated by the mother country against its colonies. We had “inalienable rights”, he said, and they were violated. The Americans were no longer going to put up with this “long train of abuses and usurpations”.

Don’t turn away from the Declaration of Independence

It is the same spirit with which the American free press has carried out its duties since 1791. Abolitionist newspapers have tackled slavery, suffragist newspapers have focused on injustices against women, and news organizations spanning centuries have reported on scandals, corruption and racial injustice.

Ken Paulson

We live in a highly polarized time, where it is easy to dismiss the opinions of those with whom we disagree and to deride those who publish the facts we do not want to acknowledge.

We must, however, be careful that our internal political wars do not distract us from the fundamental principles contained in the Declaration of Independence.

We remain a free people and must be vigilant to protect our rights and document abuses by those in power, not just when the other party’s party is in power. This is the true spirit of ’76.

Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit center based at Middle Tennessee State University. www.freespeech.center

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