Newtown Spins Off Debates on First and Second Amendment Rights

By James H. Smith

Newtown, Connecticut, is still studded with stone walls. Its giant signatory flagpole still stands in the middle of town hoisting the Stars and Stripes, still waving above the ancient and majestic maple trees, still lining Main Street. Newtown is inevitably labeled as bucolic, and it is.

Yet the pain is still palpable.

Newtown is ground zero in our widening debate over why six adults and 20 first graders in their care are now dead. It is a conversation being held in the shops of the Sandy Hook neighborhood to the halls of the U.S. Congress and everywhere in between.

Our schools failed these dead children, our police failed these dead children. American society failed them. The quick police response no doubt saved other Sandy Hook Elementary School students, but the police alone cannot solve this tragic societal ill. In fact, the law enforcement community is divided, like we all are, over how to stop mad killers with big guns.

In a real sense Newtown is caught between two basic American fundamental rights — the First Amendment and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The right to free speech and free press, and the right to bear arms.

Does the First Amendment protect violent video games and the work of literally hundreds of reporters descending on one tiny town? Does the Second Amendment guarantee that civilians can shoulder military-style assault rifles and hide them secretly in their homes?

Out of Newtown you can feel the angst, the anguish, and the stirrings of efforts to find answers, personified in a plethora of new volunteer community groups doing everything from marching on the State Capitol to support an assault weapons ban to raising money for devastated families — just how do you help the 9-year-olds who lost their 7-year-old brother or sister?

Newtown’s Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia has been so affected by journalists seeking answers she wants to shut down basic information. Hers is just one of several proposals to make death certificates secret, documents that have been public since colonial times.

Yet Aurelia is reaching out from her ravaged New England town and saying, enough! Leave us alone! In her words to the state legislature: “The media . . . want to know where the victims are buried and how they died. This is an extreme invasion of personal privacy.”

For me, her statement conjures up the image of an aged Private Ryan, in Spielberg’s powerful movie of WWII, kneeling at the grave site of the lieutenant who saved his life. Ryan weeps and hopes out loud that he had lived well, that his life was worth saving. This is the media that took a burial site and lifted us all up. This is the high purpose of the First Amendment and freedom of information.

Retired Newtown town clerk Cynthia Simon, said she “cannot conceive of any legitimate purpose for anyone other than immediate family to obtain copies” of death certificates and that the press seeks them only “to enhance their news reporting.”

But shouldn’t we think that, especially when a child dies, we should know how and why?

Yes, documents enhance the credibility of news reporting by providing hard facts for the American people. As The Hartford Courant recently pointed out, death certificates have been used by newspapers to investigate fatalities at child-care centers, baby deaths wrongly attributed to sudden infant death syndrome,  preventable deaths and the use of deadly restraints at mental institutions.

We should always look to the nation’s founders and apply their wisdom to today. They did not write “secret” into the Second Amendment. We can bear arms, but there is no constitutional right to secretly own a gun. So let’s not let gun permits be secret.

Before we start censoring videos or any form of media, or secreting away the documents of democracy, let’s remember Jefferson’s words to Madison that the government should never “restrain the presses from printing any thing they please.” The founders believed that democracy requires a free press, a watchdog on government, an open dialogue, which we still believe leads to a more perfect union.

When we are bleeding, hurting, we heal by sharing and coming together. Secrecy offers no answers and drives us apart.

James H. Smith, a retired newspaper editor, is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

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