All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1985

Book Review: The Essential Royster: A Vermont Royster Reader selected by Edmund Fuller

(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, P.O. Box 2225, Chapel Hill, NC 27515), 1985 • 345 pages • $18.95

Reviewing this collection of essays and lectures is difficult because Royster—former editor of The Wall Street Journal—writes wisely and eloquently on so many subjects—George Washington and Martin Luther, our duty to posterity and respect for the Constitution, foreign policy and the military, inflation and the State, politics and politicians (from FDR to RR), public morality and education, modern technology and the Promethean Gift, criminal trials and the use of words. His “purely personal” columns on marriage, grandchildren and the celebration of anniversaries are a delight—touching but not cloying, filled with sentiment but not sentimental.

Let me dwell briefly on what Royster says about journalism, his own field of endeavor for fifty years and an increasingly controversial subject during the past decade or two.

Our Founding Fathers believed in the revolutionary idea of freedom of the press. They would be surprised, however, and perhaps disturbed by “what has evolved in the succeeding two centuries from their views of what constitutes freedom of the press.” Certainly “they did not en vision a press of very nearly unrestrained license.”

Royster quotes Blackstone: “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraint upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every free man has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press; but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.”

There, declares Royster, “is the whole of the law and the philosophy of the press as it appeared to Englishmen of the eighteenth century, including our own revolutionists.”

Royster believes the American press occupies a unique position today and by the word press he refers not just to “the newspapers of mass circulation but to the whole of the press in all its multiplicity and diversity.” This “American press,” he writes, “can publish what it will. It can seize upon secrets stolen from government archives and broadcast them to the world. It can strip the privacy of councils and grand juries, it can pillory those accused of crimes before they are tried. It can heap calumnies not only upon elected governors but upon all whom chance has made an object of public attention. It can publish the lascivious and the sadistic. It can advance any opinion on any subject, including the opinion that all our government is corrupt and that the whole of the social order proclaimed in 1776 should be swept away and another put in its place.”

Royster believes that “freedom of the press is not some immutable right handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It is a political right granted by the people, in a political document, and what the people grant they can, if they choose, take away.” Because he cherishes the precious right of free speech, Royster warns his fellow journalists not to abuse it because “there is no liberty that cannot be abused and none that cannot be lost.”