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A free press is the only way to ensure the free flow of information and the exchange of ideas.

Do you think your fellow Americans would be alarmed and upset if the government wanted to remove a clause or two from our Constitution's First Amendment?

STEVE DEHNERSay, for instance, they wanted to revoke our freedom of religion, or our freedom of speech?

How about freedom of the press? You know, the one that guarantees that, short of certain illegal acts, people may write whatever they want, including questioning and criticizing said government, without being prevented, inhibited, or punished after the fact?

Our founders considered a free press vital to a healthy democracy. A free press holds those in power accountable to the people who put them there. A free press is the only way to ensure the free flow of information and the public exchange of ideas. Most of the principles we embrace to defend free speech also apply to a free press.

Apparently, not very many people agree with our founders or the First Amendment, and even more don't know if they do.

In a poll released July 26 by The Economist/YouGov, respondents were evenly split on the following question: "Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose permitting the courts to shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate — or haven't you heard enough about that yet to say?"

Just to be clear, authorizing the government to shut down any media outlet for any reason would be a flagrant abrogation of the First Amendment. Yet half the surveyed people who had an opinion were in favor of allowing this very thing.

Favor — 28 percent

Oppose — 29 percent

Haven't heard enough to say — 43 percent

You would think that the party that most vocally espouses limited government would be the home of the staunchest defenders of First Amendment freedoms. However, this same poll, in an even more stunning set of numbers, reveals something different when it comes to a free press. When asked the above question, 45 percent of Republicans said they were in favor of courts being able shut down media outlets (compared to 18 percent of Democrats).

I am not picking on Republicans: Ten years ago, Democrats in Congress were talking about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine to combat right-dominated talk radio. These numbers would be worrisome regardless of party affiliations, because they represent a large number of Americans.

The press can be very irksome and annoying, and in some instances worse. However, our presidents and their spokespersons have always understood the media's role in holding official feet to the fire and giving voice to the people.

There is no law mandating the media be accurate or unbiased precisely because the Free Press Clause forbids it, reasoning that a republic is not free if the government chooses which media outlets have a right to exist and which do not.

A foundational insight undergirding our constitutional system is the recognition that a government by its nature will seek the enlargement and continuation of its own power. That is why the First Amendment shields religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly and petitioning from official encroachment.

We have a right to know what officials are up to, and for that, we need a press free from government interference. Giving up that freedom is letting the fox guard the hen house. It is not just giving the government more power to abuse — it's robbing every American access to whatever media source they choose.

This is not a strategy to remove one kind of outlet for bias or shoddy reporting. It is giving government (whether judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers) the power to shut down anything they want, and after they have shut down one party's enemies, the next party in power will be free to turn the tables.

Soon none of us will be reading anything but horoscopes and weather forecasts. Newspapers and magazines would disappear without much hope of revival, and much of the Internet could be blocked from us (See: China).

No such proposal is in the works, but a dictatorial government already has most of its work done for them if citizens demand — or even accept — that their own freedoms be abolished.

Steve Dehner is a Forest Grove resident, a writer, and a library aide at the Cornelius Public Library.

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