By Denis Horgan
In a perfect setting for a discussion of such a venerable subject as the First Amendment — one as vital as ever today — the Old State House in Hartford and Connecticut Foundation for Open Government hosted a special midday “Conversation” on the history and legal developments of the nation’s premier commitment to personal liberty.
CFOG directors Daniel Klau and Denis Horgan lead the session, held in the magnificent Courtroom of the stately Connecticut treasure on January 23rd. The conversation was a tailored version of the successful program launched in 2017 in which teams of attorneys and journalists visit classrooms around the state to discuss the history and role of the First Amendment across changing times and circumstances.
The CFOG speakers brought their own unique experiences and knowledge to the discussion about how the people’s rights to a free press and unfettered speech developed, evolved and have overcome challenges over time.
Denis Horgan, a veteran journalist, commentator and author, discussed how the Bill of Rights came into being as the nation’s earliest leaders were shaping the post-Revolution establishment of a federal form of government, and how essential liberties that were at the core of the Revolution itself were needed to ensure ratification of the Constitution — as well as being vital guarantees on their own. Further, he painted the “press” landscape of those early times and how it has changed over the centuries. He talked, too, about how journalists use the First Amendment as a critical protection in their work.
A pre-eminent First Amendment defender, attorney and commentator, Daniel Klau explored the legal history around Free Press and Free Speech issues, noting how after a slightly uneven beginning — notably the Alien and Sedition Act days — the legal path was quite muted in the Amendment’s first century. But in the 1900s, that changed dramatically with the First World War suppression of dissent and, later, the McCarthy and Nixon eras’ assault on the public right to comment on their own government.
Klau detailed the aggressive and successful legal defenses First Amendment forces mounted against these efforts to diminish the public’s rights — with landmark Supreme Court decisions on shielding the press from overzealous libel action, prior restraint and other critical underpinnings of a free society.
Both men discussed today’s complex and perilous freedom of the press and speech landscape and the special challenges arising from the New Media and unrelenting attack. In a hallowed building from the very times of the Constitution’s earliest days, they shared their admiration that the nation’s first leaders actually sustained the liberties they had fought for — quite unlike nearly every other revolution in history wherein the victors seldom delivered the promises they had fought for.
The CFOG First Amendment Conversation was the beginning in what will be a continuing series of discussions of Free Speech issues.