“I am here because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others. I am here so that my son when he is grown will not have to fight or die in a land not his own, because one man or group of men try to take his liberty from him. I am here because I believe that free men should take up arms and stand together and fight and destroy the groups and forces that want to take the rights of people away.”
The person who wrote this had his United States citizenship revoked at one point. He also fought in the Cuban Revolution, becoming an ally of Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara.
His name is William Alexander Morgan. He was born and raised in Ohio. After serving in the U.S. Army (he was court-martialed in 1948 and sentenced to five years in prison, but released early in 1950) he went to Cuba to fight with and lead a group of rebels during the revolution. He was known as the “great Yankee Comandante,” one of only a few foreign nationals to hold the rank of comandante in the rebel forces.
After the revolution, Morgan found himself on the opposite side of Fidel Castro, imprisoned and shot by firing squad. Almost 50 years after his death, the U.S. restored his citizenship.
I recently traveled to Cuba, and before my visit I read a lot about the revolution. I found myself intrigued by the story of William Morgan, especially the quote above — specifically the first sentence: “… I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others.”
(Read more about William Alexander Morgan from David Grann in The New Yorker.)
Since beginning my term as SPJ president last September, a vital trend has emerged and been a constant: the importance of protecting the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I was not expecting it to be as prevalent a concern as it is for journalists and non-journalists alike. That could mean I have been taking this freedom for granted, or I’ve not felt the threat of it being taken away in my daily reporting life. Whatever the reason, I am more aware than ever about how important and necessary it is to be proactive about protecting the freedoms SPJ has fought for since 1909.
For me, reading that quote provided a sense of purpose. It directly related to what I’m doing while SPJ president and what I do every day as a journalist. We have the freedom to say what we want, publish information and do so without government retaliation or interference. We are lucky and should not take this for granted. We also have to protect these freedoms and be proactive about doing so.
Right now in the U.S., you and others may feel that those rights are being threatened or could be threatened. While we don’t want to live in fear, I don’t think it hurts to be aware of what we have now, so we can make sure we only push and fight to make it better and not worse.
Internationally, other leaders and citizens look to the U.S. for guidance and use the freedoms we have as a standard of what should be. That means that if we allow our standards for what a free press is, how it operates and what free speech looks like to be lowered, others around the world may follow.
Let’s think about this as we work as journalists. Let’s also think about this as we live as citizens in this country. We are lucky and should not take our freedoms for granted but instead remember to fight for them and push back when even the slightest portion is taken away. I can promise SPJ will be doing the same.
Next time a public records request is only partially answered, push back for all of the records. I know it can be easy to move on, especially when you have what you need for your story, but we have to hold governments accountable every step of the way — even when it is time consuming, even when the benefit of doing so for your current story is no longer there.
Journalists in the U.S. work in a profession protected under the First Amendment. Keep that in mind and remember it daily. We have the ability to hold the powerful accountable and provide a voice for the public.
Together, we can protect our freedom and the public’s freedom.
Lynn Walsh is 2016-17 national SPJ president. She leads the NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Connect on Twitter: @LWalsh. Email