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Written by John R. Vile, published on January 14, 2024 , last updated on February 16, 2024

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan, the nation's 40th president, enjoyed support from evangelicals and supported some of their causes during his presidency. In terms of First Amendment issues, he supported a free press and thought the fairness doctrine was antagonistic to an independent press. On religion and government, Reagan thought the Supreme Court got it wrong in interpreting the establishment clause to prohibit mandatory prayers in public schools. The court expanded libel protections during his presidency in a famous case involving a parody in Hustler Magazine of evangelical leader Jerry Falwell. (Official presidential portrait of Ronald Reagan, public domain)

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) served for two terms as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989. Born in Illinois, Reagan graduated from Eureka College. He spent his early working life as a radio announcer and film actor, serving from 1947 to 1952 as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

He was governor of California from 1967 to 1975 and made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination, which went to Gerald Ford, in 1976. 

Reagan was a great public speaker who was particularly good at evoking American symbols. He advanced an optimistic conservative policy that was suspicious of governmental power, especially at the national level. In his first inaugural address, he famously pronounced that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

He favored tax cuts to stimulate economic growth and was highly nationalistic, favoring a strong military posture. He invaded the island of Grenada to protect Americans in medical school there from domestic upheaval. 

Reagan survived an assassination attempt early in his administration and was arguably the most popular and consequential Republican president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. As Reagan’s administration ended, however, his record was tainted by revelations that he had sold arms to Iran to raise funds for anti-Communist rebels (known as Contras) in Nicaragua despite congressional limits on such aid. 

First Amendment issues

Reagan had strong support among evangelical Christians

Although Reagan did not attend church regularly, he had strong electoral support among evangelical Christians. He shared their view that there was a conflict raging between good and evil and he was a strong supporter of religious liberty.

At a conference on the subject on April 16, 1985, Reagan said:

“I believe that the most essential element of our defense of freedom is our insistence on speaking out for the cause of religious liberty. I would like to see this country rededicate itself wholeheartedly to this cause. I join you in your desire that the Protestant Churches of America, the Catholic Church, and the Jewish organizations remember the members of their flock who are in prison or in jeopardy in other countries. We are our brothers’ keepers, all of us.”

In his famous “Evil Empire Speech” of March 8, 1983, which he addressed to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan (who famously told Michael Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” [in Berlin dividing the Communist-controlled East from the democratically governed West]) identified the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world,” but he also addressed domestic issues.

Reagan argued that governmentally supported clinics should not be able to provide birth control and abortion counseling to minors without parental notification. Reagan also opposed abortion on demand. In this same speech, he supported what developed into the Equal Access Act of 1984, which provided for equal treatment of school religious and nonreligious student groups. Reagan viewed international communism as an existential threat to the U.S. and therefore opposed a nuclear freeze. 

Reagan thought Supreme Court erred on public prayer in school

Reagan believed the Supreme Court had erred in interpreting the establishment clause to ban public prayers from public schools, and he advocated a constitutional amendment to restore the practice. In a radio address on Feb. 25, 1984, explaining his support for such an amendment, Reagan observed that “The first amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people from religion; that amendment was written to protect religion from government tyranny.” This did not stop the Supreme Court from extending the ban on prayer in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) to adoption of moments of silence that were clearly designed to prefer prayer to other activities.

As governor, Reagan sent police to arrest student war protestors

In his gubernatorial inaugural address of Jan. 5, 1967, Reagan had observed that:

“...hundreds of thousands of young men and women will receive an education in our state colleges and universities. And we’re all proud of our ability to provide this opportunity for our youth and we believe it is no denial of academic freedom to provide that education within a framework of reasonable rules and regulations. Nor is it a violation of individual rights to require obedience to those rules and regulations or to insist that those unwilling to abide by those rules seek that education elsewhere.” 

He added that “it doesn’t constitute political interference with intellectual freedom for the taxpaying citizens of our state who support this college and university system to ask that, in addition to teaching, they build character on accepted moral and ethical standards.”

As governor, Reagan associated student protestors with communists, and he forced University of California-Berkeley, which was associated with the student free speech movement, to fire its president. In 1969, he sent police and members of the National Guard to attack student protestors (Gershon 2023).

Reagan opposed ‘fairness doctrine’ as antagonistic to a free press

As president, in a Proclamation of Freedom of the Press Day in 1985, Reagan praised “freedom of the press” as “one of our most important freedoms and also one of our oldest.” He said that “our tradition of a free press as a vital part of our democracy is an important as ever.”

For many years the Federal Communications Commission adopted the fairness doctrine by which broadcasters were required to air opposing viewpoints. In 1987, Reagan delivered a message indicating that he opposed the “Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987,” which would codify this policy.

“In any other medium besides broadcasting, such Federal policing of the editorial judgment of journalists would be unthinkable,” he said. “This type of content-based regulation by the Federal Government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

Noting that the policy had been initially justified by the scarcity of electronic frequencies, he further argued that “the growth in the number of media outlets does indeed outweigh whatever justifications may have seemed to exist at the period during which the doctrine was developed.” Reagan further extolled “the obvious intent of the First Amendment, which is to promote vigorous public debate and a diversity of viewpoints in the public forum as a whole, not in any particular medium, let alone in any particular journalistic outlet.” On this issue, Reagan prevailed, and in 1987 the FCC formally abolished the fairness doctrine.

Supreme Court decisions on First Amendment 

The Supreme Court issued a number of First Amendment decisions during the Reagan Administration.

Whereas it had recognized the right of nonviolent symbolic speech in public schools in Tinker v.  Des Moines Independent School District (1969), the court's decisions during the Reagan Administration in Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1983) somewhat narrowed such rights.

In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the high court, however, struck down a Louisiana law restricting the teaching of evolution in public schools.

In 1987, the Supreme Court decided in Rankin v. McPherson, that a governmental employee could not be fired for an offhand remark when she heard of the assassination attempt against Reagan.

In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988), the Supreme Court further ruled that parody of a public figure, in this case, of a religious leader, could not be considered to be libelous

A demonstration at the Republican National Convention that nominated Reagan, led to a flag-burning that the Supreme Court decided in Texas v. Johnson (1989) was protected speech under the First Amendment. 

Reagan appoints Scalia, Kennedy, O’Connor, to Supreme Court

Reagan gave meticulous attention to judicial nominees, creating the Office of Legal Policy in the Justice Department to supervise the process. Reagan elevated William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee with well-established conservative bone fides as chief justice when Warren Burger retired in 1986. He then appointed Antonin Scalia, who became one of the court’s most articulate conservative members, to Rehnquist’s spot.

Reagan also appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman, to the Supreme Court, who, like Reagan, was strongly committed to federalism, when Potter Stewart retired. Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy to replace Lewis Powell. Kennedy was confirmed after the U.S. Senate rejected the nomination of former Solicitor General Robert Bork after contentious senatorial hearings on the basis that he was too extreme, and after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew from consideration.

Reagan was succeeded in the presidential office by his vice president, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Reagan, who was the oldest individual to his time to be elected to the presidency (he was almost 70), was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease not long after he left office, a diagnosis that he poignantly shared with the nation. 

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. This article was published on Jan. 14, 2024.

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