Press Freedom? Only If the Mob Agrees With You.

Part of my job as an educator is to cut through some of the mythology that surrounds America’s free press history. It’s important to let my students know that everything hasn’t been as rosy as we typically have been led to believe.

America is the bastion of free press rights, correct? We respect different viewpoints and encourage open and vigorous debate, correct? We’ve been this way since our beginnings … right?

Of course not. I don’t know how many times I’ve said one of the following this semester about early American printers and editors:

“… so then an angry mob broke into his print shop, beat him up, and threw all of his type into the river.”

“… so then an angry mob took him outside and tarred and feathered him.”

” … so then an angry mob set fire to his house.”

” … so then one of those drunk guys in the mob shot and killed him.”

This was happening in America, and a lot of this was happening during the revolutionary period. If you happened to support the British government, and you published a paper expressing those sentiments, you were sometimes risking your life, and you were certainly risking your livelihood. Some Patriot zealots weren’t interested in that kind of press freedom. They were interested in the the kind of press freedom that agreed with their point of view.

It didn’t end here, of course. Perhaps one of the most notorious cases involved Elijah Lovejoy. He was an ardent abolitionist and started a newspaper in St. Louis in 1833 in which he wrote strong editorials denouncing slavery. A mob destroyed his press. He bought a second one and moved across the river into Illinois. A mob destroyed his press again. He bought a third one. It was also destroyed by a mob. He purchased a fourth one. When yet another mob came to take that press, Lovejoy was shot and killed. Colby College eventually created the Lovejoy Award in his memory to recognize outstanding journalists.

These incidents are important for students to understand, and they help create a nuanced picture of the growing pains America has experienced — and still experiences — as it tries to live up to the promise of a free and open press.

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