The age-old doctrine of state nullification is in the air across the United States, and of all the demographic groups, newspaper reporters and editors should be cheering the most — and not simply because it makes for interesting copy.
A few years ago, not many would have guessed that this 215-year-old doctrine would regain standing as an accepted political tool, but according to a May 6 Rasmussen poll, 52 percent of mainstream voters think states should have the right to block, within their own borders, any federal laws they believe to be unconstitutional.
If public support for HB 436, the Second Amendment Preservation Act, is any indication, the Missouri numbers are even higher. Thousands of residents weighed in and told state officials that they had a constitutional duty to pass that bill as part of their responsibility to defend the people’s right to keep and bear arms.
In spite of the skyrocketing public support for nullification, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed HB 436, and others have joined the governor’s claims that you just can’t constitutionally fight the federal government the way Thomas Jefferson did 215 years ago.
Which is it? Is state nullification an unconstitutional relic of the founding era, or is it a viable constitutional responsibility of every official who swore an oath to defend the Constitution? And why should the media, of all people, support it?
One answer applies to both questions.
When our forefathers separated from England and King George III, they declared that “governments are instituted among men” to “secure” our God-given rights. That includes state governments.
Article I Section 2 of the Missouri Constitution makes that clear when it declares that the “principal office” of government is to protect our freedoms, and when it fails to do so, it “fails in its chief design.”
In 1798, two states, Kentucky and Virginia, fulfilled their “principal office” by using nullification to defend the free speech and free press rights of newspapermen.
In that year, friends of President John Adams in Congress enacted the Sedition Act, which made criticizing Congress or the president punishable by fines and imprisonment. The act was no veiled threat, either. Newspapermen such as Judah Spooner, Matthew Lyon, Anthony Haswell, Thomas Cooper and many others were arrested and fined under the Sedition Act for simply expressing their opposition to policies of President Adams’ administration or, ironically, the Sedition Act itself.
The legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia couldn’t help people in other states, but they passed the 1798 Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to protect the rights of their home-state newspapermen by declaring null and void the unconstitutional Sedition Act within their own borders.
Nullification is part of the heritage of the American free press.
One need not look further than the Department of Justice’s collection of The Associated Press phone records to realize we would be wise to keep our political pitchforks sharp! Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls.
Originally published at the Columbia Daily Tribune and reposted here with the permission of the author.