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Flashpoint

October 27, 2013

FLASHPOINT: Celebrating role of newspapers in protecting free speech

ARLINGTON, Va. — Where would we be as a nation without the freedom of speech?

After all, according to the annual State of the First Amendment survey, it is by far America’s favorite freedom and our most important right. In that survey, 47 percent voted for free speech, compared with 10 percent for the next closest right, freedom of religion. It is only appropriate that we dedicate a week to celebrating free speech.

The freedom to express ourselves and speak our minds is an inextricable part of a strong democracy. When you have a government directed by its citizens, it is critical that those citizens be engaged and informed. Indeed, our founding fathers recognized the critical need for the free flow of information.

It is equally important that citizens have the freedom and the avenue to challenge the government and its representatives, discuss key issues, and be absolutely assured that their voices are heard.

Newspapers provide that avenue and self-expression through guest opinion pieces and letters to the editor. We recognize the importance of publishing a diversity of viewpoints, as we only grow as a country and effectively address difficult issues if a variety of expertise, facts and opinions are shared.

Today, social media have been heralded as among the greatest platforms for free speech and self-expression. Anyone can post whatever they want at their convenience, and it lives online for the whole world to see.

But when it comes to important matters, where citizens want to make sure that their thoughts and expertise are considered by the public and leaders alike, newspapers provide the platform to reach their community and influence their leaders.

We see this again and again, most recently when Vladimir Putin and John McCain spoke directly to Americans and Russians by going straight to newspapers. As they demonstrated, it’s an effective strategy to capture attention and state your position — whether you are a global leader or a small-town worker.

Years ago, newspapers were the only reliable way to disseminate information to a wide audience. Thanks to the Internet, our society has become inundated with information from many sources. The Internet plays a critical role in the delivery of newspaper media and newspapers remain the trusted source in communities, large or small, that cut through the clutter with the news that you need to know.

Newspapers remain the reliable way to reach the American public. Our circulation revenue is up and our readership is growing, because today, more than ever, people need a news source they can trust.

Our right to accurate news and to know the truth about what is going on is very closely tied to our right to free speech and our freedom to challenge leaders and institutions on their practices. Newspapers are a key channel for that information. Investigative journalists constantly serve as public watchdogs, uncovering everything from governmental procedures to unsafe factory conditions.

Newspapers inform the public of important stories. As we learn from others’ expertise and understand important issues, we are empowered to speak up, take a stand and create change.

In America, we have the right to publish negative stories and to realize what is really going on. We have the right to push for change and play an active role in our country. We have the freedom to express ourselves and the assurance that our voices will be heard.

We celebrated Free Speech Week this past week because we celebrate free speech every day.

Caroline Little is president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America in Arlington, Va.

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