Ukraine War’s Powerful First Amendment Lessons

As Americans, we are witnessing the horror that Russia is inflicting on Ukraine with its bloody invasion that is causing massive devastation and death throughout the country.  Ironically, the tragic events abroad also can help us gain a greater appreciation for the democratic values that we enjoy at home – values that Ukraine would like to emulate as it struggles to remain a democratic country.

That’s because the proverbial Iron Curtain has been fortified by Vladimir Putin as a barrier against the Russian people.  The populace there now is experiencing an unprecedented news and information crackdown by the government, which is shutting off outside news media and social media outlets or causing them to leave the country. 

As BBC director-general Tim Davie noted in a statement, “This legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism….  It leaves us no other option than to temporarily suspend the work of all BBC News journalists within the Russian Federation while we assess the full implications of this unwelcome development.”  Russian citizens who have taken to the streets in protest of Putin’s unwarranted siege also face the prospect of long jail sentences.

Taken together, these measures starkly illustrate that government power can be overwhelming when applied to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. 

Our Founding Fathers wisely could foresee the dangers of misapplied government power, thus necessitating constitutional limits that enable free expression and transparency to find out about governmental deeds and misdeeds.  The democratic ideals of our nation would not be possible to achieve without these restraints.

When the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1789 and ratified by the states in 1791, it included a First Amendment that prohibited Congress (and in effect, all government legislators and regulators) from restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  Aside from some narrow exceptions, such as obscenity and private defamation, the First Amendment has endured and even expanded in recent years through various Supreme Court decisions. 

The Russian response to the Ukrainian war it initiated should make all of us better understand that the fundamental nature of the First Amendment is to serve as a firewall and heat shield from government speech and press restrictions. 

Putin’s malign news and information measures demonstrate that the wrath of government can wreak as much havoc as a column of tanks or a truckload of grenades. We should pay close attention to what is happening in Moscow to maintain vigilance in safeguarding the vital stakes of our own freedoms.

Stuart N. Brotman is the author of the forthcoming book The First Amendment Lives On.  He is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and is a member of the Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.  This article appeared in The Hill.