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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Should Study Up on His Jefferson

The Russian political system being what it is, President Vladimir Putin can pretty much do what he pleases with regard to the media. If he chooses, as it seems that he has, to dramatically increase central state control in the interests of national security, then there is little that anyone can do to oppose him.

However, when he attempts to defend his policies by citing U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, as he did in a recent interview with French journalists, we must strenuously object. In response to a question about whether his concept of a "dictatorship of law" is compatible with the concept of press freedom, Putin quoted Jefferson as saying "where freedom of the press is absolute, there is no freedom for anyone." He then used this view to justify his crackdown on the oligarchs and their media interests.

Putin did add that "without the press there can be no normal development of democratic society." He didn’t seem to realize, though, that it would have sounded far more Jeffersonian if he had said, "without a free press … ."

Putin’s handlers must have searched hard to come up with this citation. However, instead of sifting through Jefferson’s vast oeuvre in search of justifications for whatever policy the Kremlin is pushing, Putin would benefit from an improved appreciation of Jefferson’s real attitude toward the independent press and its role in a democracy.

He should study Jefferson’s opposition to the Sedition Act, which was adopted in 1798 and made it illegal to criticize the president or the government. Jefferson was vice president at the time and was able to oppose the law only by speaking out strongly against it. However, when he became president in 1800, he allowed the law to expire. Moreover, he pardoned all the journalists who had been prosecuted under the law and even compelled Congress to return the fines that had been levied.

Jefferson justified these actions in a letter that truly deserves to be quoted by Putin: "I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition Law, because I considered, and now consider, that law to be a nullity, as absolute and palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image."

Putin should also familiarize himself with Jefferson’s most oft-cited comment on the press: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Russia needs a free press a lot more than another golden image.