Inside the First Amendment ‘Ho Ho’ or ‘Humbug’? — let’s celebrate and protect our basic rights

  • Written by Gene Policinski’

  Tis the season to be jolly and of good will, right?

  Responding to holiday cheer with a well-voiced “Bah” or “Humbug?”
  Well, it’s our right under the First Amendment to speak and write in ways that are naughty or nice. Let’s stick with that seasonal theme as we move from the Christmas season into resolutions and forecasts for the New Year, and consider the past year and what’s ahead.
  For both this year and next, the controversy over the National Security Agency and its electronic surveillance programs will be the “gift that keeps on giving.”
  With regular revelations of top-secret details, and a federal district court decision just days ago declaring some elements of the NSA programs unconstitutional, the top story of 2013 in the area of privacy, press and individual rights most likely will be the top story for at least the first six months of 2014.
  A presidential advisory board examining NSA policies recommended on Dec. 17 that the agency be blocked from storing massive amounts of data on Americans’ telephone records, and that court orders be required to conduct individual searches. But officials charged with preventing terror attacks said such restrictions will seriously slow efforts to prevent such attacks. And on Dec. 19, veteran national security writer Walter Pincus of The Washington Post wrote that “the vast majority” of 1.7 million classified documents that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden took with him in fleeing the U.S. have not yet been “leaked.”
  Free press advocates supporting a federal shield law — protecting journalists from being compelled in court to disclose sources — got an early present from President Obama. In June, he responded to a controversy over Justice Department seizures of press telephone records of The Associated Press, and phone and e-mail records of a Fox News correspondent by throwing administration support behind the bill. In 2010, following disclosure of U.S. secret cables and reports by the group Wikileaks, Obama opposed a similar bill.
  Still, the Grinch that is Congress pushed any chance of opening that gift to a free press into the New Year, as the Free Flow of Information Act languished in the Senate in December — though some forecast a floor vote on the bill as early as January.
  News photographers reporting on the President ended the year battling administration policies they say freeze out news media lenses in favor of the official White House camera. At a Dec. 17 meeting between top news media representatives and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, they agreed to continue talks in January about access for photo journalists to President Obama’s public events and appearances.
  Not much under the First Amendment holiday tree for Freedom of Information (FOI) advocates — who see little in the way of major changes in laws to encourage “transparency” in government, but also continued problems in getting open access to officials who can interpret or explain policies, or parse increasing amounts of raw data available on government Web sites.
  And then there’s an issue highlighted by — but not limited to — the NSA disclosures: The huge amount of data about us held by “third-parties” — private companies ranging from retailers to phone companies to internet providers. Not subject to FOI laws like government data bases, but vulnerable to government subpoenas or secret agreements with agencies, these information icebergs sail along like their real-world counterparts — with much of their bulk generally out of sight. Santa may reside in a toyshop at the North Pole, but deep details of our daily routines live in these private sanctorums-in-cyberspace. reporter Jana Winter got the best gift of all — freedom — on Dec. 10 from the New York state Court of Appeals. It ruled she did not have to comply with a subpoena that would have forced her to choose in a Colorado court between going to jail and revealing confidential sources. The New York court said Winter was protected by that state’s “absolute” shield law — and not subject to Colorado’s significantly weaker law — from having to identify the sources of a story about a revealing notebook kept by accused Aurora, Colo., movie theater gunman James Holmes.
  As we head into 2014, ultimately the best gift we can present to ourselves is continued vigilance about our First Amendment rights. And with that thought, to all a good night.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Local View - Movies are still great for this kid

  • Written by Don C. White

Editor’s Note: Palos Hills historian Donald C. White took a break from his usual research of subjects such as the Civil War and the Gettysburg Address to take a trip down memory lane of the pleasures of going to the movies.

  Let’s all go to the movies.

  As a young lad growing up in Peoria, I lived and breathed reading, movies and radio.
  There were no televisions, no iPods or IPads, no Kindles or any high-tech devices that now give instant gratification to the user. We were blessed with a great school library, movies almost every Saturday or Sunday and sometimes both days. Then I had radio every afternoon and evening after school. What more could a boy want?
  On Saturdays, a couple of the second tier theatres would show two movies, a newsreel, a cartoon, previews of coming attractions and an ongoing serial that had me hanging on the edge of my seat each week. The cost for this pure childhood joy was only 9 cents.
  Do any of you remember those good old days? If I was fortunate enough to have money left over I could go to another movie on Sunday. The only thing missing was the serial.
  When I first started going to the movies with my buddies, we were all about 10 to 12 years old. We rode the bus downtown to Peoria and many times one or all of us would spend our return bus fare at the theatre, so we all walked home. Well, we were just growing boys and we really needed our junk food. Of course back then we didn’t know it was junk food; it just tasted good and went well with our day on the town.
  I think at the age of 12 the movie price was 25 cents but it was still a bargain. The truth be told, I think I stayed 11 years old for a while after my 12th birthday. I don’t remember all the prices for sure, but I know that candy bars were 5 cents, popcorn was 10 cents and I don’t remember the cost of a soda. Maybe I didn’t drink back then. Well, I still don’t yet today.
  They weren’t called the good old days for nothing. This would have been during the late 40s and early 50s. So it was after WWII and at the beginning of the Korean War. There were a lot of war movies and, of course, westerns to fill our minds. After the movie we would come home and play either cowboys or Indians or fight another war. Yes, I had a BB gun, just not as fancy as Ralphie’s in “A Christmas Story.” No, I never shot my eye out or any of my buddies either. And none of us ever stuck our tongue to a flag pole in the dead of winter.
  Fast forward to the early 1990s and the birth of my first grandchild and the joy that accompanies an event like that. Her name is Athena and she is my Georgia Peach. The fact that she lived in Georgia presented logistical problems for us going to the movies. We were able to visit her in Georgia and she came for visits to Illinois so we went to as many movies as we could.
  We then purchased the movie as soon as it came out on video and later DVDs.
  Now in 2013, Athena is in college and there is not much time for watching movies with her.
  I miss that, but don’t worry as I have two grandsons that live close by, so I still get to see many of the children’s movies when they hit the theatres. Grandsons Nikola and Samuel are very good about letting me know when the next movie is about to hit their local theatre.
  As I write this, I am remembering going to the movies with my Grandpa Charlie back in the 40s and 50s. We even saw a movie in 3-D way back then.
  Listed below are some of the movies I have seen during the past seventeen years or so.
  First, of course were the “Winnie the Pooh” videos, then came “Stuart Little”, “Bug’s Life,” “Home Alone,” then all of the old and many of the new Disney movies. Then came “Lion King,” “Harry Potter,” “Toy Story,” “Cars,” “The Bee Movie,” “Monsters University,” “Planes,” and “Ratatouille,” just to name a few. We also enjoyed many of the “Thomas” videos.
  Now as the boys get older we are getting more into the super hero movies and then who knows what comes next?
  Whatever is in store, I have enjoyed being able to go with the grandkids to see movies on the big screen that I would not have gotten to see without them. We always try to go in the early afternoon to get the best prices. The kids and senior prices are usually the same, in the $5.50 to $8 range. That is if you don’t see it in 3-D.
  So, for the wife and I, Nikola and Samuel, a day at the movies, with a treat could cost between $30 to $50. Then we might stop and have dinner after the movie. But you know what? It is always one of the best days of my life to hear the kids laugh and to share a memory maker with them. Life is great for this kid.
  I wish Joy and Peace to all of you during this Christmas season.

Yes, Virginia An enduring question, 116 years later

  The most famous editorial that has ever been written is the one titled, “Is there a Santa Claus?”
  It has been reproduced in every conceivable form, in every quarter of the globe, since it first appeared in the New York Sun in 1897.
The question was raised in a letter to the Sun by 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon of New York City, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Philip F. O’Hanlon. The classic answer was written by Francis Pharcellus Church, an editorial writer at the Sun.
  Church undertook the assignment with reluctance, the story goes, but his fine craftsmanship produced an article that has endured and will continue to endure as long as children ask: “Is there a Santa Claus?”

  “Dear Editor:
  “I am 8 years old.
  “Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
  “Papa says ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’
  “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
“Virginia O’Hanlon,
115 West 95th Street

  “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe unless they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
  “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
  “Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders that are unseen and unseeable in the world.
  “You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
  “No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

Inside the First Amendment - No need to worry Santa, the ‘war on Christmas’ isn’t real

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

  When I read that 52 percent of American adults say they believe in Santa Claus (according to a survey from Public Policy Polling), I wasn’t surprised to learn in the same poll that 42 percent also believe there is a “war on Christmas.”
  After all (spoiler alert), both are figments of the imagination.
  Belief in Santa, at least, perpetuates a spirit of joy and goodwill. But the “war on Christmas” narrative, by contrast, does little more than stir up anger and ill will.
 Like so much else surrounding the commercial Christmas, the “war on Christmas” has become a lucrative franchise guaranteed to boost ratings for talk show hosts and book sales for culture warriors.
  Much of the outrage — real or feigned — appears to be provoked by recent trends toward inclusion, such as employers instructing workers to say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and re-christening the Christmas tree “holiday.” What store owners or schoolteachers view as inclusive language, culture warriors condemn as part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to drive Christianity from the public square.
  Yes, I recognize that there are knuckleheads out there who mandate “holidays” and banish “Christmas” in ways that are unnecessary, silly and offensive to many people of faith. But do bungled efforts at “inclusion” rise to the level of an organized “war” against Christians? I don’t think so.
  In reality, the shift from the religious Christmas to a secular holiday is nothing new or planned. Cultural Christmas in America — celebrations that culture warriors insist we call “Christmas” — has had little to do with Christ for a very long time. From the emergence of jolly St. Nick in the 19th century to the economic engine of today, Christmas-sans-Christ has a life of its own in the popular imagination.
  Consider “Miracle on 34th Street,” a film made in 1947 and re-watched annually by millions of Americans. Like many of the other Hollywood Christmas movies, it has lots of Christmas spirit, gift-giving, warm-hearted family scenes — but nary a mention of the Reason for the Season.
  Hand wringing about Christmas without Christ is a time-honored tradition in American history, starting with the 17th century Puritans of New England. For our Puritan forbearers, Dec. 25 feasts and celebrations were an abomination — a sinful holiday held on a day stolen from pagans, filled with trees, mistletoe and other pagan trappings that have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus (which almost certainly took place at another time of year).
  Before the advent of church-state separation, Christmas was suppressed in New England. The Puritan “war on Christmas” was the real deal.
  Consider the rich irony, then, of latter-day Christians fighting to keep the Christian label on pagan rituals. If Christians on the front lines of the Christmas wars really want to reclaim Christmas for Christ, they could start by giving the pagans back their holiday and trees — and advocate re-naming the shopping mall Christmas “happy holidays.”
  But truth be told, the Christmas wars are less about faith and Jesus and more about power and politics. For many of the folks upset about “happy holidays,” losing “Christmas” — however tacky the application of the label — is yet another sign of losing ground to a different, more religiously diverse America.
 For faithful Christians, however, loss of cultural dominance could ultimately mean gain for authentic religion. As “happy holidays” takes over in the marketplace, Christians can save “Christmas” for the Savior.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Inside the First Amendment — Reporting JFK’s death: 50 years of facts, theories

  • Written by Gene Policinski

  The commemoration on Nov. 22 of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is also a reminder — a stark and somber one, to be sure — of journalism as some call it: “the first draft of history.”

  From the time that three shots were fired in Dallas at the presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, that “first draft” of reporting about the tragedy reached Americans in a manner unique in history.
  Never before had an entire nation received and shared so much information at the same instant, so quickly and so widely. Of course, missteps, misinformation and rumor, combined with the speed of those events, all but guaranteed that a companion “conspiracy press” would grow up almost as quickly as events were reported.
  From the official Warren Report — itself the subject of much second-guessing — and from news reports then and now, here’s a consensus timeline of those initial hours and days in which the nation learned by news bulletin, extra-edition newspaper headlines and through unprecedented, non-stop TV network coverage, about what had happened in Dallas:
  • Kennedy is shot at about 12:30 p.m. CT. Within seconds, the presidential car speeds away from the rest of the motorcade, reaching 80 miles per hour at some spots in the four-mile trip to Parkland Memorial Hospital, arriving about 12:35 p.m.
  • The first news service bulletin, from United Press International, reached the nation’s newsrooms at 12:34 p.m. as shown on a paper copy of the bulletin shown online. Dictated by correspondent Merriman Smith, who was first to grab the press car’s radio-telephone, the bulletin says that three shots have been fired at the presidential motorcade. The ABC Radio Network reports the shooting at 12:36 p.m.
  • Lee Harvey Oswald is out of the Texas Book Depository in less than three minutes after the shooting, the report says. Just a little more than 40 minutes later, at about 1:15 p.m., after walking several city blocks, riding a city bus and changing clothes, Oswald is stopped by Dallas police office J.D. Tippit. Oswald shoots Tippit with a handgun. Within 35 minutes of the killing of Patrolman Tippit, Oswald is arrested by Dallas police, who find him hiding in a movie theater. At 11:26 p.m., Oswald is also charged with shooting Kennedy.
  • On Air Force One, at 2:38 p.m., Lyndon Johnson takes the oath of office as the 36th President. Just nine minutes later the flight to Washington, D.C., lifts off. At 5:58 p.m., Air Force One lands at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside the district. Kennedy had begun his trip to Texas from Andrews only 31 hours earlier.
  • Two days later, Oswald is fatally shot at 11:41 a.m. Sunday, in the basement of the Dallas Police Department building by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. This shooting takes place in full view of a national television audience and a host of news photographers.
  In following days, the nation was provided non-stop coverage by the then-three TV networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, of the funeral preparations, and the funeral itself, right through the procession to Arlington Cemetery and the lighting of an “eternal flame” over Kennedy’s grave.
  In this pre-cell phone, pre-internet, still early-days of TV, reporters on the scene scrambled to find pay phones to call in stories or news tips. Networks sometimes had to show anchors literally repeating one-air what they heard over a telephone handset held to one ear. Wire services communicated with each other and newsrooms over achingly-slow teletype machines. No instant messages, no e-mail and yet the first rudimentary steps were taken toward what eventually would become the “24/7” news cycle.
  One indisputable fact from all of that reporting remains true a half-century later: There is no credible report of government censorship at that moment, or of an estimated 22,000 books since written about JFK, or of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of published theories on “what really happened,” such as Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” about attempts by New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison to find a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s death.
  It’s fashionable to remark “we may never know” the ultimate answers to questions about reports of various conspiracies around Kennedy’s death, or be able to completely put to rest rumors of shots fired from the famed “grassy knoll,” or even know with certainty what Jack Ruby’s “real” motives were in shooting Oswald.
  But outside of the most-rabid conspiracy circles, it’s fair to say “we know much more” thanks to a half-century of news and information brought to us unfettered by government censorship.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .