An update from Devon, a double major in political science and communication studies:
Located just steps from Capitol Hill, the Newseum houses 250,000 square feet of media-related artifacts and relics. Among these artifacts is the museum’s collection of Civil War newspapers, which document the state of the nation before, during, and after the war.
Without a doubt, I can say that this relatively small collection is one of the most enlightening housed in the museum. Like the press today, press outlets during the Civil War often found themselves battling to overcome suppression from government forces as well as the general public. Limitations to free speech typically emerge during times of war and conflict in the U.S., and this certainly held true during the Civil War. Newspapers in both the North and South were suppressed in order to “protect national security.”
In one case, Union troops stormed the office of the Missouri State Journal for the simple fact that the newspaper was advocating for the secession of Missouri. The troops went to such extremes as to carry printing materials out of the office to prevent the printing of the newspaper. The motives behind the government’s actions contain both ethical and moral implications for the First Amendment and free speech.
Government suppression of newspapers during the Civil War was both ethically and morally wrong. However, the true lesson to be learned from the museum’s exhibit is the fact that our nation has failed to learn from its mistakes. During the 1940s and 1950s, the rise of McCarthyism saw major setbacks in First Amendment protections as the government tried to root out communism in the U.S. First Amendment limitations were imposed on students during the Vietnam War. In the 21st century, the Patriot Act has instituted even more free speech limitations on Americans as press agents attempt to undercover truths regarding torture and terrorism. These three examples are just a few among many in which our right to free speech has been imposed upon for the sake of national security.
What is a common theme between these recent instances and the Civil War? The fact that the universal excuse for limits being placed on the First Amendment has continuously been national security interests. Even though journalists of the time faced other ethical dilemmas in addition to government suppression, such as accuracy of their stories and heavy partisanship, printing accessibility unremittingly plagued journalists. The fact that we as a nation have not learned to move on from these seemingly unconstitutional limits on our First Amendment rights is certainly telling of how our country will continue to develop in the coming centuries. If liberty, freedom, and justice are supposed to be the quintessential backbone of this country, respecting free speech should be a top priority for all.
Perhaps these two quotes sum up my point best:
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana
“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” – George Bernard Shaw