Freedom of the press overshadowed

If this sounds nit-picky or defensive, so be it.

Recently I’ve been reading through the excellent, scholarly papers presented this summer at the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society and assembled in their Summer/Fall 2008 edition of the Baptist History & Heritage journal.

The topic was “Baptists and the First Amendment.” In one article, Bruce Gourley, the online editor for Baptists Today among other jobs, engages the contemporary challenges found at the intersection of free speech and the Internet.

Other than that one paper on free speech, the remaining good articles seem to suggest that the First Amendment is exclusively about religious liberty. Passion for religious liberty runs high among my crowd of Baptists — and I am as committed to that great cause as anyone else.

However, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The value of religious liberty is not diminished by recognizing the importance of the other freedoms addressed in the First Amendment. In fact, a free press is one of the best means of ensuring free religious expression.

Aside from Bruce’s paper on the Internet and free speech, the remaining papers dealt almost exclusively with the issue of religious liberty.

Mercer University President Bill Underwood noted the “six separate but related freedoms” and Baylor historian Doug Weaver quoted legendary Baptist George W. Truett stating, “A free press should not be censured by the Sultan, nor sizzled by the Czar.”

But that was it. My concern is not that too much attention is being given to the great cause of preserving religious liberty. That would be impossible.

My concern is that the First Amendment is being exclusively associated with religious freedom. A conference and publication titled “Baptists and the First Amendment” should have something more substantial to say about a free press than a couple of lines.

Don’t misread me: I am not picking on the BH&HS or the presenters (these are my trusted friends) — and I am not downplaying the importance of religious liberty (Support the Baptist Joint Committee as I do!).

This is just a simple reminder that while religious liberty may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — it should not be the only thing.

Freedoms of speech, assembly, petition and an unencumbered press deserve our attention and passion as well. Censorship that robs the public of unvarnished truth is an ugly thing.


  1. John, your comments are right on the mark. I hope we remember the importance of a free press if Congress tries to push a revival of the Fairness Doctrine.

  2. I do agree that these other freedoms deserve more attention by those in Baptist life especially Baptist historians. However, as an aspiring Baptist historian, I’ve found that it’s extremely difficult to find examples of Baptist involvement in protecting these other freedoms.

    You missed a few examples from BDW Sr.’s article though.

    On Page 13, Weaver devotes a half-page discussion to Charles Evans Hughes’s decision in Near v. Minnesota (1931) which is known as the first great press case. Near ruled against censorship and helped incorporate freedom of the press into the 14th Amendment. Thus, the federal government was now able to protect freedom of the press at the state level.

    The first paragraph on page 14 offers two quotes from Hugo Black in support of freedom of the press. See the sentences before footnotes 29 and 31.

    Also on pages 17 and 18, two full paragraphs are devoted to the freedom of press issues from Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell.

  3. John,

    You said,

    “In one article, Bruce Gourley, the online editor for Baptists Today among other jobs, engages the contemporary challenges found at the intersection of free speech and the Internet.”

    Inasmuch as I have been banned from making comments on Mr. Gourley’s online Baptist discussion forum, it would be really interesting to hear his views on free speech and the internet.

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  4. BDW-
    Good point about identifying examples. Admittedly, names and experiences from history come to mind quickly when thinking of religious liberty. And it is much harder to think of such related to a free press and other First Amendment liberties.

  5. Clarification: Doug Weaver did address freedom of the press with more statements than just one. I stated that incorrectly.
    But I stand by my conclusion that freedom of the press gets greatly overshadowed and should not.

  6. First:
    In this discussion with BDWeaver want to publicly congratulate you on the Dec issue. Great interview with Charles Marsh; though I do hope if in the coming year he addresses some of the questions raised in the recent stormy “dialogue” between me and Aaron at, you will do a follow up.
    Hope you can interview Ron Rash soon. He is most deserving.

    As for Baptists and Freedom of the Press, I’m kinda like Jane Stembridge in Marsh’s God’s Long Summer and her remark, that coulda been the Only Community she would ever know.
    To wit, Freedom of the Press is a relative thing. It’s about Power.
    I have been reading the last couple days, and want to read again collection of essays on Lincoln, particularly the one about his Use of Sacramental Language.
    Reading that along with the book on RFK’s last days, the Last Campaign.
    An Aside, RFK book adds to something you and I and Bdid agree on, John Lewis was a Saint.
    Back to Baptists and Freedom and Jane Stembridge. Looking at Lincoln and RFK and Baptist witness during the textile strike of 34; Baptists for the most part are a status quo denomination. They maintain the order and that is not entirely a bad thing.
    It comes around to the point Slaton was making about Whitsitt. I don’t think Baptists as a denomination champion Freedom of the Press, even church state.
    It is only a few in their ranks, who ever get the point, and they end up on the margins like Finlator, Marney, Will Campbell, even Hugo Black if his 72 reception at the Tutwiler Hotel in Bham is the indication.
    Even so, what a glorious margin that is; and maybe there is some comfort in that.
    Pardon the rambling.
    Do consider Rash, and the Foner chapter on Lincoln’s Sacramental Language.
    I guess that is the point.

  7. The entire First Amendment is about freedom of conscience and the ability to publicly exercise that freedom. Freedom of conscience is a core Baptist belief in one of the two main Baptist theological systems. It is sad if Baptists do not celebrate all of the First Amendment freedoms that were first proposed and adopted in part because of our Baptist patriots of the 18th century.

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