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John Ben Shepperd: South Texas Press Association

April 24, 1953

South Texas Press Association (San Antonio, Texas)

Speaking to you in my present capacity is like coming home to see Mom a couple months after enlisting in the service. I feel like laying my head on your shoulder and telling you what I’ve got myself into.

I believe you ladies present will derive benefit from a little talk about State Government and the Legislature, because of the season. It’s springtime, which means two things: The newspaperman needs to keep his eye on the Legislature and the laws it lays down, and his wife needs to keep an eye on him and law down the law.

The life of a newspaperman’s wife is not easy. Her house is a house with a deadline. She tries to teach her children to wash their hands and their faces, and then papa comes home from the press rooms, and the example destroys the precept. When the kids go with him down to the office, they come home using quaint language which daddy always blames on the boys in the back shop.

But worst of all, she has to put up with her husband’s “Journalistic Mind.” The journalistic mind is simply a propensity for viewing everything through newspaper-colored glasses. He looks at his mother-in-law the way he looks at one of his editorials—he wonders if it if will compete with the comics. He looks at your new hair-do and asks himself if it ought to be exposed to the public eye. He stays out late at night, and if you reprimand him, he starts screaming about the freedom of the press. I have even heard that when a newspaperman’s wife tells him there is going to be an addition to the family, he always jumps up yelling, “Who, what, where, when, why, and how.”

If we had time, I’d like to talk to you about the Attorney General’s Office, about our 800 clients, and about our 1100 lawsuits pending in various courts and involving hundreds of millions of dollars . . . about the 47 attorneys and 45 other service personnel it takes to handle the volume of the our work . . . about the two million dollars a day in bonds that we scrutinize and approve for local government subdivisions . . . about the actions we are taking against a number of large corporations doing business in the state without a permit . . . and about the 1300 bills that have been presented in the Legislature this session, of which our office has drawn up 90%.

I wish I had time to talk to you about the Law Enforcement Conference we held in Austin last month, as which we envisioned a Statewide Law Enforcement Team that would be the envy of the forty-eight states. The only answer to syndicated crime is syndicated law enforcement—the kind that will give the Law in Texas an arm as long as the criminal’s legs and as strong as his political connections. The people of Texas have a right to protection against the syndicated gambler, the usurer, the drunken drive, and the political feudal baron and his racketeer friends. As you know, proceedings have been initiated against a District Judge in South Texas. I don’t know what the outcome of those proceedings will be, but I do know that the citizens of every county in the state have a right to free and secret ballot and to have it counted the way they mark it. If there is any county in Texas where those liberties are being mutilated by political bossism, it is the duty of the State to call somebody to account.

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The Continental Shelf comprises enough land area to cover one-fourth of the country. Who is going to own it? Who is going to control it and get the revenue from it?

The State of Texas is not contending that it owns the Shelf beyond its Tidelands. We are simply pointing out the inadvisability of complete Federal control. We feel entitled to 37 and 1/2 percent of its revenue—the same percentage the Western states get from Federal lands within their borders—and we want the lands of the Shelf to be protected by the conservation laws and police powers of the States. Let the Federal Government own the shelf if it will, and take sixty-two percent of the revenue—but let us run it. We can do it better, and we can take better care of it. We are right here by it, and we have wiser conservation and leasing laws and more know-how. We can make it pay more and cost less.

Texas has had more oil experience than any State in the Union or any other country in the world. We know what to do with oil lands. We contend that Federal development of oil reserves has been proved inefficient, slow and expensive; we contend that it is absurd to surround this country with a no-man’s-land that is not subject to the conservation laws or police powers of any state. Consider the ridiculousness of having two oil wells side by side, one just inside the three-league boundary subject to Texas conservation laws and sitting on land leased for a minimum of $5.00 an acre, and the other just outside the line on land leased for fifty cents, subject to different and more lenient laws—both of them pumping away at the same reservoir.

The Continental Shelf is this country’s new, and perhaps last, land frontier. We must be careful to pioneer it under good laws, by efficient means.

I’d like to talk to you about the relationship of county, state, and Federal government. As we know too well, Washington has set a record for centralizing the powers, functions and duties that properly belong to the county and local government. There seems to be a movement afoot now to reverse that trend—to decentralize and send back home the threads and pieces that have been torn out of the favric [sic] of Democratic home rule and sewn into the patchwork quilt of big Federal Government.

It is the iron-clad duty of the local Press to see that these home-coming powers and functions get all the way back home. Too many of them are stopping in Austin. It is up to you who have a voice on the local level to see that they follow a straight line from Washington to the Corpus Christi’s, Cuero’s and Victoria’s of Texas, with no detours or stop-overs in Austin. These stop-overs are boosting the cost of State Government to three times what it was only eight years ago.

Most of the people do not call Washington or Austin “Home”, and Government by long distance is not self-government. Democratic government begins to die when the major part of it gets so far away from the people that they cannot see those who govern them walking on the streets. We cannot all live in Washington or Austin, so we must bring Government back to the county seat, and restore the City Hall and the Courthouse to their place beside the White House and the State Capitol.

Responsible Government is a question of the wide dissemination of public information. Access to public information is a Constitutional right neglected by the people and the Press, and abused by men in high places. Standards of secrecy have been set up in the bureaucratic circles that cover too much ground. There is a tendency to classify much information as restricted, secret, or confidential in the interest of security, but too much of it looks like security from the eye of the public rather than that of the enemy.

The idea of classified information is inconsistent with the most elementary precepts of Democracy, and the Press must oppose it on the National, State and local level; it is the duty of every bureau, office and official to make information on its activities available, and it is the double duty of the newspaper to get it and publish it to the people, whether it is paid for it or not. No bureau or bureaucrat has the right to decide for the people what is or is not good for them; unless it involves human lives, secret weapons, or troop movements, there is no business in public office that is no the business of the public. With Democracy on trial, this is no time for drawn curtains in the glass house of public office, and it is the duty of the Press to keep them open.

Freedom of the Press is not a mere freedom—it is a duty to the people. If the newspaper neglects it, it destroys the umbrella that protects the liberties of the citizen. Freedom of the Press is contested every day by men in high places. In 1950 it took a ruling of the Supreme Court to protect a publisher from prison for refusing to divulge the names of those who bought his books. Newsmen were barred this year from the Jelke trial. I am not contesting the issues, but pointing out that Freedom of the Press is neither cut nor dried, and never secure. It is a liberty to be exercised or lost.

Governments used to rise or fall by the battle-axe, but now they rise or fall with the quaking of the printing press. Napoleon paid newspapermen a great compliment when he said, “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

Your bayonets are needed today in the State of Texas. This country has created and maintained a free press; let the Press repay its debt with a free America.

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.