The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the guide for all criminal law processes within the judicial system. The Bill of Rights safeguards citizens against the abuse of governmental powers by imposing limits on the methods by which it can treat people accused of crimes against the state and provides for the equal treatment in the justice system.
The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution (Bill of Rights) located within the U.S. Constitution guarantees every U.S. citizen certain fundamental liberties and rights and is the foundation of the American criminal justice system. With regard to criminal procedures, the foremost of these rights is the assumption of innocence. Though not explicitly written into the Constitution, this presumption has been interpreted by several court rulings as implied in the Eighth and Fifth Amendments. It has become a fundamental right that is universally recognized by the courts and public alike. Under this presumption, defendants are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Defendants do not have to prove their innocence. The government must establish guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ This right and others are outlined in four Amendments, the Fourth which protects against searches and seizures without benefit of a court warrant, in addition to the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments.
The Fifth Amendment guarantees the defendant’s right to ‘due process of law’ and from being subjected to ‘double jeopardy’ or testifying against themselves. Double jeopardy means being put on trial twice for the same offense (U.S. Department of State, 2001). The ‘Miranda Rights’ are covered by the Fifth Amendment. Even those who have never been issued a traffic citation can recite these rights if they have watched television in the last 40 years. Until relatively recently, the Sixth Amendment was interpreted to mean the defendant had the right to an attorney of their choice but not to be appointed one if they could not afford it. Today, the courts interpret this Sixth Amendment right to include appointing an attorney for defendants that can’t pay for one. The Eighth Amendment prohibits courts assessing ‘excessive bail’ and implementing ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ This subjective concept has been defined as punishment not more severe than others receive who have committed comparable crimes. “The Supreme Court says the government cannot torture convicts nor punish them arbitrarily or unnecessarily. The Founders wanted to avoid any return to such barbarous and discontinued English practices as disemboweling a convict and then pulling off his arms and legs” (Ambrose, 2006).
The First Amendment to the Constitution is the most recognized and recited of the Bill of Rights within both political and social realms because it is the most essential in preserving the uniquely American freedom the Founding Fathers envisioned. The First Amendment effectively guarantees free speech, freedom of the press and religion. Freedom of the press is an extension to the freedom of speech concept. A free press is essential to the idea of democracy and has been accurately described as the ‘Fourth Estate’ of government. As the three branches of government act to check and balance each other, the press watches over them all.
The Founding Fathers considered a free press one of if not the most important aspect in the formation of a free and democratic society. Though much of American law is patterned from the English legal system, the Founders wanted to distinguish the newly formed government from England where the press was tightly censored. Journalists who questioned the King’s decisions were often jailed or worse. The Founders knew that if the press were not free, the country would not be either.
As guaranteed by the First Amendment, a free press serves to enlighten the public regarding governmental activities. The value of uncensored information to the continuance of democracy cannot be understated. In a society that governs itself, such as the U.S., the ability to make knowledgeable decisions based upon unfiltered information and open discussions is vital to its continued existence. Without the press and the constitutionally guaranteed freedom it enjoys in this nation, democracy could not endure. If they were to overstep their powers, the American citizens would not know if it were not dedicated journalists who consider it their patriotic duty to guard the interests of the public. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln articulated this sentiment as well as anyone when he stated, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe” (Krimsky, 1997). The author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of America’s first University and third president Thomas Jefferson believed that liberty depended upon a free press and to limit this fundamental freedom would be to lose it altogether, along with it the freedoms of the nation’s citizens. According to Jefferson, “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right” (Kann, 2006). The founders of the nation created the government of and thus answerable to the people. Journalists are the conduit that carries this right of the people.
Despite the criticisms of the press, would anyone in this country actually want press to stop doing its job? Journalists, as part of a free press, serve to enlighten the public regarding governmental activities as well as other items of common interest, often placing themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others. America probably needs the freedom of the press today more so than in any other time in its history.
Ambrose, Jay. (2006). “The Eighth Amendment: Matching the punishment with the crime.” Traverse City Record Eagle.
Black, J. (1963). “Opinion of the Court Supreme Court Of The United States 372 U.S. 335 Gideon v. Wainwright.” Supreme Court Collection. Cornell University Law School. Web.
Cassell, Paul & Markman, Stephen J. (1995). “Miranda Rights and the Criminal Justice System.” National Review.
Kann, Peter R. (2006). “The Power of the Press.” Wall Street Journal. Web.
Krimsky, George A. (1997). “The Role of the Media in a Democracy.” A Free Press: Rights and Responsibilities. United States Information Agency.
U.S. Department of Justice. (2001). “Criminal Justice in the U.S.” Issues of Democracy. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Vol. 6, N. 1.