1 thought on “John F. Kennedy Speech „The President and the Press“

  1. When he said „secret societies“ he was speaking generally, meaning a society in which the people are not made aware of the actions of their governments.
    – Kennedy contrasted an „open“ society such as the United States with it’s free speech and freedom of the press, with a „secret“ society such as those of communist countries (at least from the U.S. perspective.)

    So why was he talking about this? For that you should read or listen to the whole speech, including the beginning that such Youtube videos often leave out. JFK titled this speech „The President and the Press,“ which he states in the section usually left out of conspiracy videos, and addressed it to the American Newspapers Publisher’s Association, not the public. The speech can be summarized thusly:

    „I know that the president and the press often clash, but this speech is about co-operation between us. We are a society that values freedom of the press and rejects the secrecy that we see in communist governments…. BUT if you guys don’t shut yer’ yaps about certain things that my administration is doing, then you are helping the commies and hurting our country so shut up!“

    The speech is the Cold War equivalent of „Loose lips sink ships.“ Throughout the speech, Kennedy repeatedly talks about how the press should weigh reporting with „national security.“ He talks about how secret societies have an advantage over the U.S while our press published information that our enemies would normally need to steal. The „secret societies“ part that conspiracy theorists cite is basically him trying to soften what he’s about to ask. In the rest of that paragraph he emphasizes that he is not in favor of censorship, that he’s not denouncing freedom of the press in the interest of his administration, nor is he advocating that the U.S become a secret society as opposed to an open one. But then the rest of the speech is dedicated to persuading the press to practice self-censorship, or what he calls “discipline” just as they did during open warfare.

    As an analogy, think of a coworker coming up to you and saying „So I know that we don’t have assigned parking spots and you’re free to park wherever you want…“ which you can anticipate is followed by a big ol’ But. „…but I usually park there and so it’s kind of my spot.“ Every time that JFK espouses the values of free speech and press is followed by a big ol’ But after which he talks about the need for the press to restrain itself. That’s the core theme of the speech. I wish I had a source with numbered paragraphs I could refer to, but here are a few selections. Let’s start with the paragraph right after the secret societies one, and it begins with-you guessed it- a big ol’ But.

    „But I do ask every publisher, every editor, and every newsman in the nation to reexamine his own standards, and to recognize the nature of our country’s peril. In time of war, the government and the press have customarily joined in an effort based largely on self-discipline, to prevent unauthorized disclosures to the enemy. In time of „clear and present danger,“ the courts have held that even the privileged rights of the First Amendment must yield to the public’s need for national security.“

    „[E]very democracy recognizes the necessary restraints of national security–and the question remains whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed if we are to oppose this kind of attack as well as outright invasion.“

    „The newspapers which printed these stories were loyal, patriotic, responsible and well-meaning. Had we been engaged in open warfare, they undoubtedly would not have published such items. But in the absence of open warfare, they recognized only the tests of journalism and not the tests of national security. And my question tonight is whether additional tests should not now be adopted.“

    „If the press is awaiting a declaration of war before it imposes the self-discipline of combat conditions, then I can only say that no war ever posed a greater threat to our security. If you are awaiting a finding of „clear and present danger,“ then I can only say that the danger has never been more clear and its presence has never been more imminent.“

    „For the facts of the matter are that this nation’s foes have openly boasted of acquiring through our newspapers information they would otherwise hire agents to acquire through theft, bribery or espionage; that details [here he cites specific examples]… have all been pinpointed in the press and other news media to a degree sufficient to satisfy any foreign power“

    Now, for context, this speech was delivered at the height of the Cold War and The Red Scare. The precise date is April 27, 1961, just days after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion that spanned April 17-21 of that month. Aside from indications that there had been leaks regarding the invasion prior to, the Kennedy Administration was no different from a lot of Cold War Administrations in its behind-the-scenes anti-communist machinations. Around this time, his administration was also getting increasingly involved in Vietnam, which started during Eisenhower’s administration, but it wanted public information on the nature and extent of our involvement in Vietnam to be limited. We know this because of the eventual leak and publication of the Pentagon Papers, which became the focus of the case New York Times Co v. United States in 1971.

    It should also be contextualized in terms of First Amendment case law. During WWI, 1917 to be exact, the U.S passed the Espionage Act. Part of the Act criminalized obstruction of the draft. In 1919, in Schneck v. United States the Supreme Court upheld the criminal conviction of a Socialist anti-war activist who distributed pamphlets to drafted soldiers that compared the draft to slavery and claimed it to be a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. This case was the origin of the „clear and present danger“ test limiting First Amendment rights that Kennedy referred to in the speech. Specifically, the pamphlets represented a „clear and present danger“ to the government’s efforts to draft and recruit soldiers to fight in the war. Crucially, the court’s decision hinged on the fact that the pamphlets were distributed during a time of war, stating that speech that would be permissible in times of peace can be restricted in times of war.

    Throughout the following decades, especially as the Red Scare took hold, limitations on speech and the press through legal and non-legal means became mainstream and the government used this doctrine and all of its expansions and modifications to enact prior restraint (laws, policies, or other gov’t actions to prevent speech or publication)and even criminalize certain types of speech. This was the environment that led to McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities.

    Although this speech was not an attempt at legally binding prior restraint by Kennedy, it reflects the feelings of his administration, government officials, and a large portion of the populace of at that time: The U.S was in a state of war even without war being declared and this requires voluntary or involuntary restrictions of speech. This speech was a plea for voluntary restraint. But he refers to the legal doctrine allowing involuntary restraint as a point of persuasion. He says that First Amendment Rights can be limited in times of “clear and present danger.” It is worth noting that this statement is actually an inaccurate and overly broad description of the doctrine. He’s citing it as though speech could be limited based on a general atmosphere of “clear and present danger” – which is essentially Red Scare logic- instead of the actual doctrine which was that speech could be limited when the speech itself represents a “clear and present danger” during a time of war (in other words he’s conflating the two prongs of the Schneck doctrine: the danger of the speech and the National context). He then goes on to describe America’s enemies-the communists- as a clear and present danger. Again, he’s using this to persuade. The implication of this is that the existence of the communists and the Cold War justifies limiting speech and that the press should use “discipline” to censor itself in the name of national security because, as Kennedy said in the earlier paragraph, he doesn’t want to censor them, and an open society wouldn’t censor them as a secret society would. However, one might also interpret his citing of First Amendment limitations and then describing present circumstances as meeting that standard as a veiled threat. Essentially saying “I don’t want to censor you, but I will if you don’t censor yourselves.”

    Of course, the 1960’s became a turning point in the Cold War with the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the resulting countercultural movements. Whether in any way related to this or not, in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) and New York Times Co v. United States (1971) the „clear and present danger“ test was replaced and the government’s ability to limit speech started to be substantially curtailed. In the latter case, which as I mentioned before revolved around the New York Times’ attempt to publish the Pentagon Papers, the SCOTUS established that the government had to meet a higher burden to exercise prior restraint than had previously been recognized.

    I’ve had friends try to use this speech as evidence of Kennedy of trying to inform the public about NWO and such and tying it to his assassination. But that interpretation ignores both the majority of the speech’s text and the Cold War context. Far from trying to inform the public of things being hidden from it, he was telling the press to hide things from the public in the name of „national security.

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