Some of us are closer to those events than others.
The Capital Gazette — then known as the Maryland Gazette — started publishing in 1727. That was 64 years before newspapers were protected by the First Amendment. And it was 49 years before the Declaration that won the newspaper, and the whole nation, freedom from the interference of the British Crown.
The Declaration of 1776 was a big enough deal that the Gazette, like many papers of its day, published the whole document for all to see. Though, as a writer for The Baltimore Sun pointed out the other day, Thomas Jefferson’s submission went on Page Two that day. Page One, as always, focused on local news.
Not everything that goes on a newspaper’s pages — or, these days, its website — seems as momentous at the time they are published. For example, an account of a court case involving a young woman and a man who won’t leave her alone.
Such an account appeared in the Capital Gazette of Annapolis in 2011. It outlined how the woman had been subject to a relatively new form of harassment, the online, social-media kind. And how she had been forced to go to court to get some relief from the man’s constant attacks.
After the Gazette carried its report, the perpetrator turned his ire on the newspaper. At least he was no longer picking on someone smaller than himself. And the libel suit he filed against the newspaper was, of course, a loser. Because, however much the man might find it unpleasant, the story was true. And, because it was played out in open court and public documents, belonged in the public’s view.
At the time, it might not have seemed to anyone involved that this was a major press freedom case. It wasn’t the Pentagon Papers. It wasn’t The Times vs Sullivan, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said public officials fighting to maintain the status quo in the segregated south could not use libel suits to silence truthful publications.
But Thursday it became clear that it was a extreme case of a person who was willing to go to extreme lengths to stop the free press from just telling the truth, just because he didn’t like other people knowing it.
Five people were killed when that sad man opened fire in the Gazette offices. They died just for doing their job. Just telling the truth. Not pushing an agenda or taking a side. Certainly not being “the enemy of the people,” as an outpouring of sympathy from the community, the Annapolis mayor and the governor of Maryland, among others, attests.
It is a job that the United States, and Annapolis, and Salt Lake City and everyplace, big and small, has to have done if it is to continue to have and hold the freedoms those other pieces of paper, like the Declaration of Independence, demand.