Home » News » Presidents and the First Amendment: Power, accountability and the rights that keep us free

By Ken Paulson, published on February 19, 2024

Select Dynamic field

Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. From left are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. AP Photo, file

When you’re the president of the United States, the First Amendment can have a downside.

There you are, one of the most powerful people in the world, and more than 340 million people have the right to criticize you. Journalists watch your every move and columnists write articles challenging your positions. Frustrated citizens take to the streets to march against your policies. It’s not a good job for someone with thin skin.

As we celebrate Presidents Day on Feb. 19, it’s worth remembering that the power of the presidency has long been kept in check by the First Amendment via the voices of the American people and the news media that keep an eye on government. The First Amendment allows us to confront the abuse of power and demand change.

John Vile, a distinguished constitutional scholar and my colleague at Middle Tennessee State University, has just completed the First Amendment Encyclopedia’s ambitious overview of every American president’s engagement with the First Amendment. Some presidents have been tempted to limit freedom of expression in the face of public criticism, while others have embraced freedom of speech and press throughout their terms.

Observations from the just-published overview:

  • Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were largely responsible for the very existence of the First Amendment, with Jefferson advocating for a Bill of Rights and Madison authoring it.
  • The First Amendment was ratified in 1791, but just seven years later, second President John Adams supported the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, legislation that was used to jail newspaper editors critical of the Adams administration and to prosecute others deemed to be disloyal. 
  • Some of our most respected presidents had their lapses. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln imprisoned newspaper editors, shut down telegraph lines and engaged in censorship in clear violation of First Amendment principles.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt incorporated two First Amendment freedoms into his timeless “Four Freedoms” address asserting the essential nature of “freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.” Yet for all his emphasis on personal freedom, he was also responsible for the internment of Japanese-American U.S. citizens during World War II.
  • Woodrow Wilson led our nation through World War I and successfully proposed the League of Nations, but also sought and secured passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, limiting free speech perceived as being disloyal.

Until 1970, Presidents Day largely focused on George Washington’s birthday and his accomplishments. With the establishment of Presidents Day as a national holiday, the celebration includes everyone who has held the office of the presidency.

That’s a good thing. Our presidents have been a varied lot, politically, intellectually and spiritually. There is much to be learned from the men who held the toughest job in the world.

Today, we live in a highly polarized society in which politicians harness hate and fear for electoral purposes. It’s commonplace to dismiss or demonize the beliefs and speech of others, and as the free-speech organization PEN America observes, “We face the worst spate of book bans since the Red Scare of the 1950s.”

The Red Scare – a national hysteria about the threat of communism – was most visibly fueled by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who made undocumented claims about widespread infiltration of the U.S. government by communists, leading to congressional investigations.

Congress also held hearings to explore the influence of communism in Hollywood, leading to the blacklisting of more than 200 film professionals who had done nothing other than exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly.

Harry Truman was president during those dark days and he had no patience for McCarthy’s theatrics, calling him “the best asset that the Kremlin can have.”

Truman, one of our most colorful and outspoken presidents, was also one of our most beleaguered, with his approval rating plummeting at frequent intervals. He took tough stands and received widespread criticism, particularly when he dismissed once-beloved Gen. Douglas McArthur.

Yet Truman was also a fierce defender of the public’s right to dissent. 

In a 1950 speech pointing to the insecurity of police states, Truman said, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

Give ‘em Hell, Harry. Happy Presidents Day.

Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment- and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ


More than 1,700 articles on First Amendment topics, court cases and history