Gov. Blagojevich Learns The Hard Way That Censorship Does Not Work

12/14/2008 09:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Governor Blagojevich's call for the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers who were critical of him was a full-fledged effort at censorship. Free and open exchange in the market place of ideas is one of the bedrock principles of a democratic society. To act otherwise, to stifle criticism or opinions, is done at one's own peril.

According to federal law enforcement officials, as reported in the New York Times, Gov. Blagojevich had been illegally threatening to withhold the state's help in a business deal unless The Chicago Tribune fired editorial writers who had criticized the governor and called for his impeachment. As it turned out, the writers were not fired. Rather, the editorial board continued to confront the governor. The business deal in question involved the Tribune company's purported sale of The Chicago Cubs baseball team and its stadium, Wrigley Field. The stadium deal had stalled, and the editorial writers criticized the governor's attempts at circumventing procedure. The governor is reported as saying, "Fire all those [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out and get us some editorial support."

The primary function of an editorial board - which consists of the editorial page editor and editorial writers - is to set the tone and direction of a newspaper's editorials. Editorials reflect the opinion of the newspaper. At the Chicago Tribune, R. Bruce Dold is the editorial page editor; John P. McCormick is the deputy editorial page editor.

Just what kind of criticism did the Chicago Tribune editorials level against Gov. Blagojevich? On November 14, in an editorial titled "Gambling with Health Care" , the Tribune criticized the governor's failed attempt at expanding health care coverage under the FamilyCare program for parents and caretakers who earn up to $83,000 per annum. Although the governor had not secured funding from the legislature, thousands of individuals had signed up and are now left stranded. On November 21, in an editorial titled "Nobody Trusts the Gov...", the Tribune took aim at the governor's leadership and governance skills. "Imagine a state with a governor who evokes trust, a chief executive who can broker agreements among legislators and other state officials. You can imagine that for as long as you want, though, and you won't be imagining Illinois. The current governor, Rod Blagojevich, engaged in his customary governance-by-press-release this week, surprising lawmakers with a plan most notable for giving him added authority to cut expenditures." Notwithstanding all the criticism, the Tribune offered the governor a chance to clear the air. On December 7, the Tribune wrote, "Gov. Blagojevich, we invite you to accept the advice of your lieutenant governor and meet with the Tribune board to 'answer all questions raised.' Our offer is sincere, as is our hope to understand your own actions as well as your views on the federal investigation of corruption in our state's government ... Governor Blagojevich, let's talk."

The standard for free speech was established almost four decades ago. In a 1971 Supreme Court decision, New York Times Co. v. United States (better known as The Pentagon Papers), Justice Hugo L. Black wrote, "The Press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of the government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people ... Without deviation, without exception, without any ifs, buts, or whereases, freedom of speech means that you shall not do something to people either for the views they express, or the words they speak or write." Gov. Blagojevich, we're not about to turn back the hands of time on this issue.