Free Information, Free People

“our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
— Thomas Jefferson, January 28, 1786

I had an interesting conversation about quotes by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, third president of the USA) and current politics a few days ago, and that prompted me to do some more research and to write about things I noticed. Before anyone asks: In the original letters I’m citing here, Jefferson uses lowercase letters at the beginning of the sentences, so I kept it that way.

“the way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. but I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
— Thomas Jefferson, January 16, 1787 (emphasis added, easier-to-read transcript)

In a democracy, the government should do what the people want it to do. However, people need to know what is actually going on to form an opinion on what should be done. Today Jefferson probably wouldn’t write “newspapers” but rather “media”, and “every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them” sounds a lot like “free and unrestricted Internet access for everyone”, including access to all government data. He is confident that the people will do the right thing if they can form an informed opinion, so much that in case of conflict a well-informed public is more important than having any government at all.

It is essential to understand that in the first quote Jefferson was talking about insults and false claims in the press. He knows that this freedom can be abused, and yet he says that the freedom of the press “cannot be limited without being lost.” This is an absolute statement, not a recommendation to be careful. Censorship must never be permitted if you don’t want to lose freedom itself.

“[…] under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. this is a true picture of Europe. cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. if once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress, & assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves.”

The sad thing is that the last sentence describes the current situation in both Europe and the USA all too well. Many people feel that politicians do what they (or the big companies) want anyways and stopped caring. And it is not like politicians try to change this, we are just being told things are “without alternatives”. Think about how decisively the public is kept out at G8 meetings, ACTA negotiations and similar occasions! Maybe the “wolves” don’t want to be disturbed by the “sheep”?

Another thing I want to emphasize is the “reclaim them by enlightening them”. Education is key here. To understand what is going on and to put it into perspective, a good education is necessary, and that means not just knowledge, but most importantly the ability to think by yourself. Which is why I encourage you to read the letters by yourself and I’d be glad to hear what you think about this. 😉 If a government is doing the right thing, it should have no problem gaining the people’s support if it clearly explains the reasons rather than expecting people to shut up after voting.

Oh, and there’s also something that I think can very well be applied to Wikileaks:

“I agree with you that it is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country.”
— Thomas Jefferson, October 4, 1823

3 thoughts on “Free Information, Free People

  1. ok this time in english since I already discussed this with you in german but maybe others are interested in comments to this topic.

    As I told You on an idealistic, theoretical level I agree with the main thought but for me the problem is that it is only in an idealistic world practicable. Not only the it is most unlikely that this kind of unlimetted access will ever occur, and even IF I wonder how many people would care about it…
    I mean, theoretically we have a free press, practically media is at least partly a tool of politics because aim of media is not simply infirmation access but rather selling, earning money. So in a capitalistic society as we live in a purely information based media system will just never occur.

    Plus I think the freedom of press is aimed towards political, religious and ethnic believes. It is so that people can form their own opinion on topics. So on some cases I think it is ok to say ‘here no media’ and this would be when human lives can be endangered. In a kidnapping or maybe terrorist attack where the knowledge (and it did happen, eg. in Bremen was a kidnapping a few years ago, reporters where constantly following the car of the kidnappers, bringing the kidnapped in enrormous danger, plus revealing everything the police might have planned. I’m not sure how it ended but still this is something that is to be looked at as a criminal act) so that there are specific cases. Since these cases have no political or other idealogical value that is important for forming an opinion on subjects I don’t think this goes against the idea of free press.

    but basically I think the whole media system would need to be remodelled to work for a real democratic system. I do not believe a world as you describe it in the post would work as things are… and premsumably will never wirk.

    Oh and another point: If, just like that all information from all countries woud be layed open: this wouldn’t work! Sorry but you know the movies where people just say the truth all the time and how it just doesn’t work#ß if single humans can’t cope with telling the truth the whole time. If I can’t even tell my sister how her nit calling and wrting hurts some people because they care for her, and this is in fact a positive and not bad news to her and she feels threatened, what do yu think will happen between the countries??? That the wikileaks story did not escalate is a small wonder, it could also have cost thousands of people their lives. If all information from countries like america, the european union, China would be made public just like that I believe a thrird world war woukd be at hand… and what good would it then be for the people to know everything when they live in constant fear of dying or beeing dead.
    this might look really pessimistic but I think it’s rather realistic and at least something to take into consideration.

    This doesn’t mean that I think it is good as things are now. In fact I hate it as much as you do, and I think if people work together things can definatly improve I just think a radical view, a: ‘either or’ view doesn’t work in this world.

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