Russian press restrictions recall early America

July 09, 2000|By Scott Shane

THE RECENT news from Russia calls into question one of the momentous achievements of the past decade in that troubled nation: media that are free to criticize the government. Such freedom, imperfect but without precedent in Soviet or pre-Soviet Russia, was forged under Mikhail Gorbachev and sustained through the rocky rule of Boris Yeltsin. It is crucial if Russia is to be reborn as a prosperous and peaceful place.

Yet for those already nervous about President Vladimir Putin's KGB background, the barely submerged war on the opposition press is ominous.

Mr. Putin's denial of any role in the recent three-day jailing of media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, whose feisty television network, radio station and newspaper have been important independent voices, was preposterous. Like the detention of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky in Chechnya earlier this year and the police raid in May on the headquarters of Mr. Gusinsky's Media-Most Group, the episode carried a whiff of Stalinism.

Such tactics seem to grow out of Russian soil. They are unimaginable in America today. But it is worth casting an eye back 200 years to a moment when this country was in a similar stage of self-invention, and press freedom hung in the balance.

An invaluable guide is historian Richard N. Rosenfeld's 1997 book "American Aurora," a firsthand tour of a post-revolutionary America struggling to define the limits of political propriety.

By building his 989-page tome almost exclusively from original documents -- articles from the violently partisan press, records of Congress, letters written by leading citizens -- Mr. Rosenfeld puts the reader in the middle of the fracas of 1798-1800. It is a sobering place to stand.

In school and in much of pop culture, early America comes to us as a sunny pageant in which bewhigged wise men, defying the tyrannies of European monarchs, joyfully unite around the Bill of Rights.

In fact, the United States was a country bitterly divided between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, a place where political passions often spilled into street violence. Newspapers were full of fierce advocacy, and several of the Founding Fathers thought an excellent place for an editor who attacked the government was jail.

Under the Sedition Act, passed by Congress in 1798, and draconian state libel laws -- under New York's law, the truth of the alleged libel was not a defense -- aggrieved politicians could often act on their passions. Consider a few news items from those days:

Dec. 4, 1799: David Frothingham of the New York Argus, convicted of damaging the reputation of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, is imprisoned for four months.

April 4, 1800: William Durell, editor of the Mount Pleasant Register in New York, is sentenced to four months in jail for "false, scandalous, malicious and defamatory" writings on President John Adams.

April 11, 1800: Charles Holt, editor of the Bee in New London, Conn., is sentenced to three months in prison under the Sedition Act for the crime of calling Adams' "provisional" army a "standing" army. The newspaper closes.

April 24, 1800: Pennsylvania lawyer Thomas Cooper gets six months in prison for writing a handbill blaming Adams for high interest rates and other complaints.

Such actions were cheered, when they were not instigated, by the likes of Adams, Hamilton and George Washington.

Of the paper the Federalists hated most, The Philadelphia Aurora, Adams wrote that if the district attorney "does not think this newspaper libelous, he is not fit for his office and if he does not prosecute it, he will not do his duty ... " Washington agreed. The editors of the Aurora were subjected to repeated prosecutions, not to mention mob attacks.

There was nothing like the modern American consensus that a free press should be protected from the government; many felt it was the other way around. Hamilton wrote to a friend: "To preserve confidence in the officers of the general government by preserving their reputations from malicious and unfounded slanders is essential."

In the partisan fray, even newspapers endorsed censorship. "That such a newspaper should be tolerated in the capital city of the United States," the Federalist Gazette of the United States wrote in 1800 of the Aurora, " ... is proof that our laws are incompetent to restrain or suppress its daring licentiousness ..."

In the end, of course, daring licentiousness won the day. The Sedition Act expired in 1801, and Thomas Jefferson, its most prominent opponent, became president.

In 1964, when the Supreme Court expanded protection for newspapers in the landmark libel case known as New York Times vs. Sullivan, the late Justice William J. Brennan Jr. traced the strength of press freedom in U.S. law and tradition exactly to that time when it was most threatened. The struggle over the Sedition Act, he wrote, "first crystallized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment."

Perhaps someday Russians will look back at Mr. Putin's experiments in punishing the press and draw a similar conclusion. By trampling a right, a government sometimes teaches its lasting value.

Scott Shane, a reporter and former Moscow correspondent for The Sun, is the author of "Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union."

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