“The First Amendment is the “owner’s manual” for Americans.”
We spoke with Matt Storin, former editor of the Boston Globe, for the fifth installment of our First Amendment interview series, One on 1.
Matt discussed how the First Amendment is the “owner’s manual” for Americans and how the freedom of the press protected him and his newspaper from being sued for reporting on the truth.
Christian Cotz: Hi, I’m Christian Cotz, CEO at the First Amendment Museum in Augusta, Maine where we help people understand and inspire them to live their First Amendment freedoms.
Today I’m joined by Matt Storin who’s had a long career in journalism including positions as managing editor at the New York Daily News and editor at the Chicago Sun Times. And Matt, you were editor at the Boston Globe for about a decade I understand?
Matt Storin:That’s right, from essentially 1992 until 2001.
Christian Cotz: Why do you think the First Amendment is important?
Matt Storin: We’re all familiar with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence which Thomas Jefferson wrote. You know, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I would describe that as kind of the philosophical underpinning for American freedoms, but the First Amendment is like the owner’s manual.
It gives us the tools to live up to what Jefferson wrote about. Freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of people to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances: I think those are the tools by which Americans live, though not flawlessly, not in all cases knowledgeably, but they are the bedrock.
Christian Cotz: How has the First Amendment intersected with your daily personal and professional life?
Matt Storin: In my life, the freedom of the press has been the essential part.
Particularly in Boston, we took on some major institutions, a lot of the bureaucracies that operate. Of course, sexual abuse among the clergy, which came just after I left the Globe, but which some of which was going on before I left.
Which allow you to delve into the records and the secrets really of various organizations. We often got sued, sued for libel or defamation.
There was a fellow running for governor in Massachusetts named John Lakian. He falsified his bio and Walter Robinson, who is the hero of the movie Spotlight – which is about the sexual abuse scandal – he got a story that these things weren’t true. And he documented them all and so we got sued.
Lakian sued us but we won the case because we were protected by the First Amendment. And by legal decisions that have come down through the years that buttress the establishment of the press against public figures. If you’re a public figure and you’re written about in the press, then you don’t have a lot of recourse in terms of winning a libel suit unless you can prove gross negligence. In other words, motivation, maybe, on the part of the writers and the editors.
Christian Cotz: Do you think people in our society understand or recognize their First Amendment rights?
Matt Storin: Not many people can name the five freedoms that are guaranteed by the First Amendment. But I think they have a general idea, I think particularly regarding speech. Even though we see it sometimes honored in the breach with what we now call the cancel culture of people not wanting to listen to other points of view.
Perhaps the one that is most utilized and understood is the freedom of assembly, that is the protest. And we saw that play out this past summer.
Christian Cotz: How do you think that you personally utilize or exercise your First Amendment freedoms on a daily basis?
Matt Storin: That’s a very good question, Christian, because I think like most Americans, I take them for granted. I cannot say I’ve ever encountered a particular time and at least not in this country that my freedom was being restricted.
Now I was a foreign correspondent for a while in Vietnam and Cambodia. Korea would be a key example. During the time that I was there in the 70s, when Park Chung-hee was president and basically a dictator, the restrictions that we as correspondents were put under were quite rigid.
Christian Cotz: If you had one wish for the people of the United States that had to do with their First Amendment rights, what would that be?
Matt Storin: Teaching civics in elementary and high schools. Young people should know how something becomes a law, what is the role of the Supreme Court, and how does that all fit with the Constitution.
And so I think the fact that there is going to be a First Amendment Museum – is a First Amendment Museum – in Augusta, Maine is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Christian Cotz: Well Matt, thanks so much for talking to us today. We’ll definitely be back.