by SC Staff Writer Jan Holly
Florida Weekly columnist Roger Williams began his remarks to the Democratic Club of the Islands, Jan. 17 at the Community House, by borrowing President Trump’s well-known characterization of the press. “I am an enemy of the people,” Williams said, with pride.
Williams’s mission on this evening was to enhance his audience’s understanding of the 1st amendment, especially the clause safeguarding freedom of the press. To that end, he quoted another political leader, America’s 4th president James Madison, who famously remarked that we are indebted “to the press alone. . .for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”
Assuring his listeners that “we are not in as much trouble as it looks like, seems like, or sounds like,” Williams shared his understanding of the first amendment through an historical lens.
Reviewing the component rights of the amendment—freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition—Williams remarked that “it is such a simple piece of language, but its roots go back to Henry VIII.” He reminded his audience of the violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Tudor England, prompting many—including his namesake ancestor and founder of the Colony of Rhode Island—to depart England for American shores.
He declared the first Roger Williams to be author of the “first thinking in the New World about free speech. He rejected the idea that God lent authority to government. It took a century, but his views worked its way into our system,” Williams said.
Williams also read from a judicial opinion of the early 20th-century Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Charles Evans Hughes, who Williams credits for pushing the 1st amendment as a firm value in American political thought. “The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech,” Hughes said.
Williams’s recounted the history of Benjamin Franklin’s role in “the start of [American] journalism. Ben’s older brother founded The New-England Courant,” Williams said. “Ben wrote for The Courant under the pen name Mrs. Silence Dogood. He was forced to flee to Philadelphia when he was found out.”
Williams portrayed American journalism in the early19th century as “an entirely different thing. Papers and journalists were recruited by political parties—as advocates for a side,” he said.
Williams showed that, during the Civil War, newspaper writing style changed. “Descriptions from the battlefields had to convey what was happening, but the sentences had to be short and sharp, thanks to the telegraph,” he said.
He cited newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who learned in the latter years of the 19th century that more people would buy their papers “if they got straight reporting. Pulitzer hired a woman whose pen name was Nellie Bly,” Williams said. “Too bad she is not around now. She was a real firebrand—fearless,” Williams said, adding that Bly’s investigative reporting “changed everything in journalism.”
Turning his attention to the current problems that journalists face, Williams acknowledged that the press is “under terrible assault, but I am optimistic about the outcome. It is a wonderful time to be a journalist,” he said. “The president gave us a gift. He holds up the mirror, and we see a people who understand the purpose of free speech, even if it is wielded by knuckleheads. This is to our advantage. . . and it’s a pretty wonderful thing.”