Assemblyman Marc Levine plans to make proposals to help newspapers that are experiencing economic difficulties in the digital age. He should weigh his proposals carefully for while government should not interfere with the core democratic value of press freedom, neither should it sponsor the press putting a necessarily skeptical press in the hands of government funding that could lead to possible intimidation.

Let’s be very clear: Newspapers are not the enemy of the people. They are a necessary, constitutionally protected, essential piece of our American Democracy.

This does not mean to say that newspapers are beyond criticism.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “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.” But he also wrote: “Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first Truths; the second, Probabilities; the third, Possibilities, the fourth, Lies.”

While the constitution prohibits government from making laws that abridge freedom of the press, might government make laws that have the power to influence and intimidate the press? That is possible if laws are created to essentially help newspapers survive in difficult times and newspapers come to rely on government for survival.

Interestingly, one of the provisions Assemblyman Levine is reportedly considering is an exemption of sales taxes on newspaper sales. Digging deep into my archives, I found an op-ed I wrote for the Los Angeles Times in 1991 in which I opposed levying a tax on newspapers, which was part of the tax package presented to the legislature during an economic downturn that affected the state budget.

In the article I wrote, “Newspapers are an invaluable resource. Often they are the spine that holds a community together. The tax would restrict the ability of newspapers to gather information and discourage people from getting that information.”

Assemblyman Levine has a similar view of a newspaper’s role in the community. However, saving newspapers by having government help fund local papers is something that should be concerning. Whatever proposals he comes up with, Levine should be aware of the dangers government funding could create.

The State of New Jersey recently allocated $5 million and created the Civic Information Consortium to dole out grants to support community newspapers. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page rightly pointed out in an editorial titled, “The Government Press Corps,” “…it’s doubtful that journalists whose grants ultimately depend on politicians will write hard-hitting stories embarrassing those politicians.”

Government should not abridge the press, neither should it pay for it.