Most important amendment: The First

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

Just a little over six years ago, I wrote an article for the Wilmington News Journal. I didn’t know whether they would publish it or not, but I sent it in anyway.

At that time, there were some things I just needed to get off my chest about the city.

I had been mayor for a little over six months and, not surprisingly, there had been quite a few bumps in the road.

One of those bumps had to do with a piece of legislation had been proposed by the president of Wilmington City Council. The legislation would that have eliminated several vital administrative positions.

The legislation was prepared by him with no input from administration. It passed city council by only one vote.

Immediately, as I had promised, I vetoed the legislation.

As far as we could determine, when I vetoed that piece of legislation, it was the first mayoral veto in the history of Wilmington.

The article was written to explain to the citizens what was happening, why it was happening and what to expect.

I also felt that it was important to explain the separation of governmental powers. So, going back in history to the framers of the Constitution, I explained the strict separation of powers that exists between administrative, legislative and judicial branches of government.

I was very glad that the Wilmington News Journal was willing to publish the article. Not only did they print the article, but the editor, Lora Abernathy, called me a few days later and told me that she liked my writing style. She then asked if I would be willing to write a weekly column for the paper.

So, here we are, six years later, and I’m still cranking out weekly columns.

That is one of the major purposes of a newspaper: To provide information about controversial topics. Often those topics divide people based on ideological, philosophical and political views. I’m sure some people still disagree with my veto.

However, information needs to be published. The truth needs to be told.

As citizens and neighbors, we will never all agree on everything. We won’t even agree on what is true and what is not true, but it’s important to get the facts out and let the people make up their own minds.

That is the job of the newspapers and media.

The first president I voted for was Richard Nixon in 1972. I thought that he was clearly the right man for the job. Right or wrong, I felt he had performed well since first being elected President in 1968.

Then came Watergate. Like many Americans, I trusted that it was simply a third-rate burglary gone awry.

I believed what the President and the White House were saying about the break-in.

At the time, I was living in Marysville. Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson had a column routinely published in the Marysville Journal-Tribune. It was called “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

It made me angry every time I read it.

Anderson would not back off the Watergate story. He wrote about every rumor that was floating around Washington, D.C. about the burglars, who paid for it, what information was stolen, who initiated the robbery and who benefitted.

Anderson liked to refer to himself as a muckraker — someone who searched out and publicly exposed real or apparent misconduct of prominent individuals. In the Watergate case, the prominent individuals were White House officials – including the President.

We all know the outcome. Eventually, the Watergate tapes proved that Richard Nixon approved the break-in before it happened and participated fully in the cover-up. He remains the only president to have resigned in disgrace.

Jack Anderson, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post, the New York Times and every newspaper and reporter who wrote about that “third-rate-burglary” were proven to be right.

Just because he was the President, Richard Nixon was not above the law.

The First Amendment to our Constitution is very clear. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We cannot and must not do anything to restrict the freedom of the press.

Should we believe everything we read, at all times, regardless of where it is published? No way, but read it anyway.

Make up your own mind. Keep an open mind.

It will always be up to the individual reader to determine if the information is true, false or is muckraking at its lowest form.

Freedom of the press is vital. I will always keep in mind that not everything that comes out of the White House is true.

Richard Nixon taught me that lesson — a lesson well-remembered.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist