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Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press

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Freedom of the press—the right to report news or circulate opinion without censorship from the government—was considered “one of the great bulwarks of liberty,” by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Americans enjoy freedom of the press as one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. New technologies, however, have created new challenges to media freedom.

The First Amendment, which protects freedom of the press, was adopted on December 15, 1791, as part of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights provides constitutional protection for certain individual liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to assemble and petition the government.

Origins Of Free Press

Before the thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, the British government attempted to censor the American media by prohibiting newspapers from publishing unfavorable information and opinions.

One of the first court cases involving freedom of the press in America took place in 1734. British governor William Cosby brought a libel case against the publisher of The New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, for publishing commentary critical of Cosby’s government. Zenger was acquitted.

Cato’s Letters

American free press ideals can be traced back to Cato’s Letters, a collection of essays criticizing the British political system that were published widely across pre-Revolutionary America.

The essays were written by Brits John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They were published under the pseudonym of Cato between 1720 and 1723. (Cato was a statesman and outspoken critic of corruption in the late Roman Republic.) The essays called out corruption and tyranny in the British government.

A generation later, Cato’s Letters frequently were quoted in newspapers in the American colonies as a source of revolutionary political ideas.

Virginia was the first state to formally protect the press. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights stated, “The freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”

More than a decade later, Virginia Representative (and later president of the United States) James Madison would borrow from that declaration when drafting the First Amendment.

Media Freedom And National Security

In 1971, United States military analyst Daniel Ellsberg gave copies of classified documents to The New York Times. The documents, which would become known as the Pentagon Papers, detailed a top-secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

The Pentagon Papers exposed government knowledge that the war would cost more lives than the public had been told and revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all had misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The government obtained a court order preventing The New York Times from publishing more excerpts from the papers, arguing that the published materials were a national security threat. A few weeks later, the U.S. government sought to block publication of the papers in the Washington Post as well, but the courts refused this time.

In the New York Times Co. v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers, making it possible for The New York Times and Washington Post to publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers without risk of further government censorship.

Former CIA employee Edward Snowden leaked classified documents from the National Security Administration to newspapers in the U.K., United States and Germany in 2013. His leaks revealed several government surveillance programs and set off a global debate about government spying.

Some denounced Snowden as a traitor while others supported his actions, calling him a whistleblower and champion of media freedom.

Press Freedom Around The World

In 2017, a U.S.-based nonprofit, Freedom House, found that just 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press—a media environment where political news coverage is robust and uncensored, and the safety of journalists is guaranteed.

The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories include: Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The United States ranked 37 of 199 countries and territories for press freedom in 2017. Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden were the top ranking countries.


The Origins of Freedom of Speech and Press; Maryland Law Review.
Freedom of the Press 2017; Freedom House.

"Freedom of the Press in Small-Town America"

This is not a book about freedom of the press, but rather the author sees it as an example of freedom of the press. The bulk of the book consists of selected weekly columns or that ran in the Journal-Courier of Jacksonville, Illinois between November, 2009 and October, 2018. They are supplemented by pieces the author wrote for a list of friends and associates both before the start date and after the closing date. Each piece is given a short introduction. This is liberal opinion published by a conservative small-town newspaper. Steve Hochstadt is a Jew who grew up in a middle-class suburb on Long Island, New York. He taught history at Bates College in Maine before moving to Illinois College in Jacksonville in rural Illinois. The author seems surprised that he was able to publish his liberal opinions in conservative rural Illinois for nine years. Although he received written expressions of distaste, he was never verbally abused or threatened when he ventured out in this small community.

Yet, at the same time, he admits that he was &ldquonaïve&rdquo in supposing that he could change public opinion by stating a few facts each week in the newspaper. That does not seem to have worked. Morgan County, of which Jacksonville is the county seat, voted 62 to 65 percent Republican for president in every election 2004-2020, with one exception. In 2008, John McCain carried Morgan County by less than one per cent. I wish the author had speculated as to why.

Hochstadt did pull his punches somewhat in the published columns. The introductions and non-published pieces contain more sharply negative assessments of conservative (and Republican) policies and points of view. He also wrote rather often about non-political subjects&mdashfamily holidays, gardening, dogs, the seasons, and sports figures, especially Jackie Robinson and Mohammed Ali.

The author is an honest, decent, fair-minded, generous, reasonable, and charitable man. He sees himself as an outsider in America, in part because his father as a Jew had to flee Vienna, Austria in 1938 to avoid the Nazis. He has published on the history of the Holocaust in which he, of course, lost family members. The threat of tribalism in every human society is never far from his consciousness.

He asserts that &ldquoMy lifetime of opinions depends on the crapshoot of birth, the chance of geography, and the idiosyncrasies of family life.&rdquo (p. 118) How is it then, that the reviewer, of mostly German Protestant descent and raised on a financially precarious western Missouri hog farm, agrees with him on almost every topic he chooses to discuss. When Hochstadt asserts that &ldquoPolitical economy is what I care about.&rdquo (p. 381), and &ldquoWhen Republicans turn their evil eye on the poor, I get sick.&rdquo (p.214), I&rsquom right there beside him as I am on climate change, gun control, respect for science, regulation of business, voting rights, health care, racism, anti-Zionism and the many other topics he addresses. Only in love for sports and dogs do our opinions differ. I suffered a great deal of shame for my klutziness on the school athletic field, and the family dog attacked me when I was about 12.

We do share similar experiences. I am only a single year older than Hochstadt and we are both professionally trained in history. My father, too, had to leave the world he loved best as economic trends forced him off his small family farm when I was in high school. So I, too, have been the skeptical outsider when listening to American corporate capitalism&rsquos promises of plenty. We both faced the Vietnam era draft, although I was drafted, and he escaped with a high lottery number. Yet all this is not enough to satisfactorily explain our political similarity&mdashnot enough for me nor for the reader either, one suspects.

Reading this book allows one to review many of the most common political concerns liberals have had over the last dozen years. One likes to have one&rsquos point of view reinforced. But I cannot share the author&rsquos optimism about amelioration. Wish that I could!

Still, in this age of extreme political partisanship, one enjoys reading the musings of such a thoughtful and decent man&mdasheven one of firm political opinions.

Freedom of the press

Assorted References

…of speech and of the press, particularly as that freedom permits an informed access to information and opinions about political matters. Even the more repressive regimes today recognize this underlying principle, in that their ruling bodies try to make certain that they themselves become and remain informed about what is…

Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, it is not always enforced, and some journalists have practiced self-censorship.

…and the constitution provides for freedom of the press. The Bengali newspapers have relatively small circulations, a fact that reflects the low level of literacy in the country. Nonreaders, however, are still exposed to the ideas and influence of the press, as newspapers are often read aloud in groups. Although…

One of the most dramatic attempts by the government of the United States to exercise prior (prepublication) restraint occurred in connection with the Pentagon Papers (1971), a “top secret” multivolume report on the Vietnam War that was surreptitiously supplied to various…

…of religion, speech, and the press, and the right of peaceful assembly and petition. Other guarantees in the Bill of Rights require fair procedures for persons accused of a crime—such as protection against unreasonable search and seizure, compulsory self-incrimination, double jeopardy, and excessive bail—and guarantees of a speedy and public…

…freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, and to petition—discussed here together as “freedom of expression”—broadly protect expression from governmental restrictions. Thus, for instance, the government may not outlaw antiwar speech, speech praising violence, racist speech, pro-communist speech, and the like. Nor

Freedom of the press was pursued and attacked for the next three centuries but by the end of the 18th century a large measure of freedom had been won in western Europe and North America, and a wide range of printed matter was in circulation.…

…into effect that further limited press freedoms. Since 2000, however, there has been an easing of some prohibitions. Jordan has several literary magazines as well as scientific and topical periodicals. Radio and television stations, which are government-owned, feature programs from both Arab and Western countries.

The 1976 constitution guaranteed freedom of the press. Readership of daily newspapers in Portugal is quite limited, particularly outside the urban centres. The nationalization of industry that began in 1974 encompassed the leading Lisbon newspapers, which had been owned by banks. Gradual reprivatization began in 1979. The daily Diário…

…complained about the lack of freedom of the press in Venezuela.

…Specific civil liberties enumerated included freedom of the press, the free exercise of religion, and the injunction that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or by the judgment of his peers.

Support by

…reiterating his views and his right to publish them. Threats of mob violence, however, forced him to move his press across the Mississippi River to Alton, in the free state of Illinois. Despite its new location, his press was destroyed by mobs several times in one year. Finally, on the…

…in 1985 to advocate for press freedom worldwide. Named in reference to the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders (commonly referred to by its French acronym, RSF) has received numerous awards for its work, including the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005. The…

…a French acquaintance how far liberty of the press extended in England, he said: “I cannot tell, but I am trying to find out.”

Trial of

…of a journalist’s right to free expression. His The Political House That Jack Built (1819), the first and most famous of a series of satires that he produced with the caricaturist George Cruikshank, ran into 54 editions but failed to keep Hone solvent. A bankruptcy (1828) followed his imprisonment for…

…the first important victory for freedom of the press in the English colonies of North America.

2012 to present: Expanding our pro bono legal services

The Reporters Committee named Bruce Brown its executive director in 2012. Under his leadership, the Reporters Committee has expanded its services and resources. In 2014, Brown brought on Katie Townsend to build a pro bono litigation practice offering direct representation to journalists and news organizations. Our attorneys are now working on cases for public records access, court access, matters involving the impersonation of journalists by law enforcement, and more.

We’ve also grown the practice to include working with documentary filmmakers, and expanded efforts to explore the intersections between technology and the First Amendment. We’ve also been at the forefront of efforts to work with the federal government to solidify reporters’ rights to keep sources confidential. We continue to aggressively seek opportunities to speak out on behalf of journalists and news organizations nationwide through our robust and growing amicus practice.

In the last four decades the Reporters Committee has played a role in virtually every significant press freedom case that has come before the Supreme Court — including Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, U.S. v. Moussaoui, and Carpenter v. U.S. — as well as in hundreds of cases in federal and state courts that affect press rights.

And since our founding, no reporter has ever paid for our help in defending First Amendment rights. This was the vision of our founders and our proudest achievement.


The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was created in 1970 at a time when the nation’s news media faced a wave of government subpoenas asking reporters to name confidential sources.

One case particularly galvanized American journalists. New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell was ordered to reveal to a federal grand jury his sources in the Black Panther organization, threatening his independence as a newsgatherer.

Caldwell’s dilemma prompted a meeting at Georgetown University to discuss the need to provide legal assistance to journalists when their First Amendment rights come under fire. Among those present, or involved soon afterwards, were J. Anthony Lukas, Murray Fromson, Fred Graham, Jack Nelson, Ben Bradlee, Eileen Shanahan, Mike Wallace, Robert Maynard and Tom Wicker.

They formed a committee that operated part-time and on a shoestring (its first “office” was a desk in the press room at the U.S. Supreme Court). With support from foundations and news organizations, the founders built a staff and began recruiting attorneys to donate their services.

An early member of the Steering Committee — Jack C. Landau — was a reporter- lawyer who covered the Supreme Court. In his spare time, Landau started the First Amendment Hotline — the first cost-free 24/7 legal guidance service for journalists involved in First Amendment and freedom of information issues — and also located cost-free lawyers to the press aided by Steering Committee member Fred P. Graham, a reporter-lawyer at the Supreme Court.

In those early volunteer days, Landau also started several other legal defense and research projects that remain key parts of the Committee’s activities today. Among these projects were the first magazine for the press devoted to collecting, indexing and reporting news media law developments and the first service center offering free help to the press on federal and all state public records, aided by Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Gene Roberts.

The Committee also launched as an independent but affiliated project, the Student Press Law Center, the first center offering cost-free legal help to high school and college, aided by Steering Committee member Jack Nelson. Landau eventually became the Committee’s full-time executive director.

The Committee was a plaintiff in several early test-case law suits relying on volunteer lawyers from major Washington D.C. firms. They included suits for access to 41 million White House documents and tapes held by former President Nixon to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s official telephone transcripts to FBI arrest records and also an effort to block telephone companies from giving secret access to media telephone records.

Attorney (and former journalist) Jane E. Kirtley replaced Landau as executive director in 1985. Kirtley was determined to provide top-quality, reliable resources to help journalists know the legal protections and pitfalls as they did their jobs. During her tenure, the Committee began to produce comprehensive guides for reporters, including a 50-state compendium of state open government laws, now known as “The Open Government Guide.” “The First Amendment Handbook” provides basic information about media law for newsrooms and “Agents of Discovery” surveyed the incidence of subpoenas served on America’s newsrooms.

Kirtley also began a popular legal fellowship program for young attorneys breaking into media law. It was during these years that the Committee also became more financially stable, beginning an endowment that now totals more than $2.5 million.

By the time Lucy A. Dalglish took over as executive director in 2000, the Committee was poised to build on its considerable reputation. After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Committee became the nation’s leading authority on efforts to prevent important information from reaching the public. Its “Homefront Confidential” reports and “Behind the Homefront” weblog are authoritative summaries of what happened to the public’s right to know in the post-9/11 world.

Dalglish left the Reporters Committee in July 2012.

In recent years, the Committee has taken the lead in building coalitions with other media-related organizations to protect reporters’ rights to keep sources confidential and to keep an eye on legislative efforts that impact the public’s right to know. It also has aggressively sought opportunities to speak out nationwide through amicus curiae briefs.

In the last four decades the Committee has played a role in virtually every significant press freedom case that has come before the Supreme Court — from Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart to U.S. v. Moussaoui — as well as in hundreds of cases in federal and state courts.

The Committee has also emerged as a major national — and international —resource in free speech issues, disseminating information in a variety of forms, including a quarterly legal review, a weekly newsletter, a 24-hour hotline, and various handbooks on media law issues.

Academicians, state and federal agencies, and Congress regularly call on the Committee and its attorneys for advice and expertise, and it has become the leading advocate for reporters’ interest in cyberspace.

Important as these activities are, the Committee’s primary mission remains serving working journalists — more than 2,000 of them every year who call the hotline, and tens of thousands who access our online resources. And since its founding, no reporter has ever paid for the Committee’s help in defending First Amendment rights. This is the incarnation of the founders’ vision and the Committee’s proudest achievement.

More on the history of the Reporters Committee from:

  • Co-founder Murray Fromson on the 35th Anniversary
  • Jules Witcover, “A reporters’ committee that works,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1973
  • Floyd J. McKay, “First Amendment Guerillas: Formative Years of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,” Journalism Communication Monographs, Autumn 2004(This article is used with permission of AEJMC and may not be re-used in whole or in part by anyone for any purpose.)

The Inadequacy of American Press Freedom

In recent years, the relationship between First Amendment rights and American democracy has become unsettled. For decades, a broad political consensus had presumed that a press free from government interference was the sine qua non of democratic liberty a stronger First Amendment would mean a stronger democracy. As a result, First Amendment rights are more protected today than at any time in American history. Yet the press is beset by crisis. The “mainstream media” is a regular whipping boy in populist political rhetoric. With advertising revenues collapsing, newspapers have been forced to lay off staff, if not close their doors. Meanwhile, the news media has struggled to report on the activities of the secretive security state during the War on Terror—when inside sources share such information, they risk prosecution for illegal leaking. And since the 2016 elections, fears about fake news have proliferated. Americans are taking a closer look at the free press they have long lionized, and they do not particularly like what they see.

Almost a hundred years ago, a young Walter Lippmann was similarly disillusioned with the nation’s press. In 1919, in a series of articles in the Atlantic, he cast a cynical eye over the sensationalist headlines of the commercial press and the rise of wartime censorship and propaganda. In passages that sound familiar today, he worried about the rise of a “pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses” and bemoaned how easily the news spread the “contagion of unreason.” And even though the First Amendment was just beginning its meteoric twentieth-century rise—Oliver Wendell Holmes had outlined the modern vision of free speech in his Abrams v. United States dissent only weeks earlier—Lippmann already thought that the right to publish without state interference was inadequate to confront the problems of the modern press. In fact, Lippmann thought that protecting rights to free opinion and expression were less important than protecting what he called the “stream of news” upon which opinions were based. “Protection of the sources of its opinion,” Lippmann soon insisted, “is the basic problem of democracy. Everything else depends on it.”[1]

As he wrestled with this difficult problem over coming years, the increasingly conservative Lippmann would come to scale back his commitments to democracy, free speech, and the potential of public opinion. By 1926 he was arguing that the “public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd.”[2] We can see early signs of a similar political trajectory in contemporary fears about fake news and suggestions that it might be possible to regulate away misinformation. But many other Americans in the twentieth century, as concerned about the “stream of news” as Lippmann, responded to crises in the press not by scaling back their belief in the First Amendment but by expanding it. They continued to argue that a more democratic press required not only freedom of expression but also a commitment to what some called “freedom of the news.”

In this article, I want to look at the way that mid-century press reformers sought to mitigate two new problems that remain with us today: corporate consolidation in the news industry and the rise of state secrecy. These topics rarely make it into our histories of press freedom, which remain focused primarily on First Amendment jurisprudence as developed by the Supreme Court. But if we look beyond the courts to broader political and intellectual debates about press freedom, we can find both more expansive understandings of the right to a free press and a more complex story about the rise of the modern First Amendment. In so doing, we can find a better guide to the problems that confront American press freedom today.

When the First Amendment was written in the late-eighteenth century, the printing press did not radically differ from Gutenberg’s, invented centuries earlier. Over the next century, however, technological and economic developments transformed the press. By the first decades of the twentieth century, a newspaper industry had emerged, dominated by mass, urban newspapers with vast circulations. Because they were appealing to advertisers, these newspapers had the potential to be highly profitable. But to reach as many readers as possible, they required massive investments in production and distribution infrastructure. Newspapers were therefore increasingly owned by wealthy publishers and, as advertising revenues flowed to the most successful papers, smaller newspapers were forced to close.

As a result, by the first decades of the twentieth century the newspaper industry had begun a period of consolidation that has continued into the present. We often think that the decline of the newspaper industry began with the rise of the internet, but the U.S. actually had its highest number of newspapers in 1909. Between 1919 and 1942, at a time when the population expanded by almost 30 percent, there was a roughly 15 percent decline in the number of newspapers in the nation. Those papers that remained were increasingly monopolistic. In 1910 there were 689 cities with competing newspapers by 1960, there were only sixty. And these profitable, monopolistic newspapers were frequently joined in chains and headed by flamboyantly wealthy newspaper barons who played an outsized role in American political life. William Randolph Hearst was the textbook case.

In the Progressive and New Deal era, this decline of newspaper diversity was seen by many as a real challenge to press freedom. Press critics like Upton Sinclair and George Seldes argued that if a small group of wealthy businessmen owned the press and depended on advertising revenues from big corporations, then newspapers could not be truly democratic or report fairly on the economic and labor crises confronting the nation. During the depression, when newspaper publishers like Hearst and Robert McCormick emerged as reactionary opponents of the New Deal, concerns about the undemocratic nature of the press reached a crescendo. Boycotts and mass meetings were held to protest Hearst, who was dubbed one of the “forerunners of American fascism” by Raymond Gram Swing.[3] (It is no accident that Citizen Kane, the cultural masterpiece of the era, trained its sights on the newspaper publisher.) On election night in 1936, pro–Franklin D. Roosevelt crowds celebrated by egging the Chicago Tribune building and setting fire to a delivery truck. In a nationally broadcast debate in 1939, New Deal Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes declared that “the lack of a free press is the most serious threat confronting our democratic government.” The “vast financial investment” of the papers, Ickes concluded, “binds them closely to the business world from which they draw their sustenance. Freedom is impossible…when the counting office holds the whip hand.”[4] It’s hard to imagine a later cabinet member arguing that capitalist control undermined the freedom of America’s press, but it was a very different moment for populist outrage against the political biases of the “mainstream media.”

New Dealers sought to reform the economic structure of the newspaper industry so that a greater diversity of newspapers could exist and a greater range of information could reach the public. As part of the National Recovery Administration, they proposed a code of fair trade practices for the newspaper industry intended to prevent large newspaper chains from discriminating against smaller papers. Anti-advertising activists affiliated with the Food and Drug Administration attempted to ban false advertising, in part to protect consumers but also to roll back newspapers’ dependence on corporate capitalism. The Justice Department brought an antitrust action against the Associated Press (AP) wire service in an effort to expand newspaper diversity. (At the time, normally only one newspaper per city could subscribe to the AP, a real disadvantage for those starting new papers.) The New Dealers were committed civil libertarians, and so these reform proposals stopped short of any effort to regulate the content of the newspapers. But by treating the press as an industry like any other, they nevertheless imagined that some form of state regulation of newspaper economics might be necessary to produce a more diverse and democratic press.

The newspaper industry vigorously opposed these policies. Behind closed doors, they lobbied politicians to ward off regulation. Led by Elisha Hanson, general counsel for the American Newspaper Publishers Association, they argued publicly that New Deal efforts to regulate the press violated the First Amendment and threatened American press freedom. If the New Dealers regulated the economics of the press, Hanson argued in 1943, the people of the “U.S. will be confronted just as the people of Germany today are confronted, with a government-controlled press.”[5] The mostly-forgotten Hanson was thus a central figure in the history of the First Amendment—he pioneered the now-familiar use of civil liberties as a tool to ward off economic regulation.

In the 1930s and 1940s, at a time when Americans were deeply concerned about the rise of totalitarianism, Hanson’s arguments were successful in blunting New Deal press reform. The proposed code of fair trade practices was rewritten to be essentially toothless the truth-in-advertising measures were radically watered down. While the Justice Department won its antitrust case against the AP, the Supreme Court was so worried about potential interferences with First Amendment rights that it set a narrow precedent for the applicability of antitrust law to the press. And Hanson’s arguments had so convinced liberals of the dangers of state action that there would be very little antitrust action in the press after World War II. When the Justice Department did dust off the AP precedent to try to block the merger of two newspapers in Tucson in the 1960s, the newspaper industry successfully lobbied the Nixon Administration for a formal exemption. Known as the Newspaper Preservation Act, this exemption began the late-twentieth century’s long wave of media deregulation.

In the second half of the twentieth century, therefore, America’s press was free from economic regulation. Economic consolidation continued as highly profitable monopoly newspapers hoarded advertising dollars and used those profits to buy their way into new markets, forming vast newspaper chains. Seeking to fund further expansion in the 1970s, many newspapers were listed on the stock exchange and began to take on debt. But as we now know, these empires were built on shaky foundations. When the media landscape diversified in the 1990s, advertising dollars evaporated. Fixated on maintaining profits, these publicly-listed businesses began to cut costs, particularly by slashing reportorial budgets. When that failed, they went out of business.

We can never know, of course, whether a different regulatory environment would have encouraged the newspaper industry to develop different, more sustainable, economic practices. But thinking about the economic history of the newspaper industry recasts the history of American press freedom. We normally assume that the public and the press share an interest in First Amendment rights and that the press needs to be free from state interference so that it can best inform the public. But once the press consolidated as a powerful industry, it was less clear whether the press and the public had the same interests. New Deal reformers, for instance, thought that the public interest in a diverse newspaper market might require state regulation of the press. But the newspaper industry successfully argued that such state regulation violated press freedom their economic freedoms were essential to democratic liberty. The result, as A. J. Liebling pithily put it in the 1960s, was that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”[6]

At roughly the same time that Americans lost interest in reforming the newspaper industry, they confronted a new challenge to press freedom—the rise of state secrecy. The pressures of World War II and the Cold War led to the construction of a vast new apparatus for keeping information secret from the public. In 1951, Harry Truman issued an executive order creating the modern classification system. We do not know exactly how much information has been classified since then—that is part of the point of a secrecy regime—but since the 1950s reviews of the system have routinely noted that it is bloated, classifying far more information than it should. In 2001 philosopher of science Peter Galison estimated that there were some 7.5 billion pages being kept secret, roughly the same number of pages as sit on the shelves of the Library of Congress. Today, between fifty and eighty million documents are classified each year.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in an effort to protect the public’s right to access information about their government, a freedom of information movement composed of journalists tried to roll back the secrecy regime. At first, they argued that the First Amendment right to a free press implied some right to access information. One of their leaders, Kentucky journalist James S. Pope, argued that “the right to speak out and to publish…requires implicitly the right to know.” But soon even Pope was forced to concede that “freedom of information is a will-o’-the-wisp among basic liberties.”[7] The courts have never recognized that the press has a Constitutional right of access to information.

Anti-secrecy activists instead turned to the legislature for relief and eventually succeeded in winning the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of 1966, an amendment to the Administrative Procedures Act. FOIA, which was revised in 1974, provides citizens with a right to receive information from the government and to go to court to enforce that right. But it was an inadequate tool for confronting the modern secrecy regime, as it exempted classified information from disclosure (as well as eight other categories of information, including internal policy deliberations). FOIA, in other words, did not challenge or reform the classification system, but rather deferred to it. Courts have subsequently been highly deferential to state claims that material is exempt from FOIA. That fact, combined with regular delays in processing requests, means that FOIA has not been helpful for journalists working on deadline. Instead, it has been used more successfully by corporations looking to glean information about regulations and contracts, as well as historians. The freedom of information movement did not succeed in its efforts to include the right to access information as one of the rights of a free press.

More broadly, Americans do not believe that the classification system interferes with the rights of a free press. This is because the classification system censors information at the source, leaving the press free to publish classified information it can get its hands on. As the Pentagon Papers decision made clear, the press has a First Amendment right to publish even classified information. But government employees do not have a First Amendment right to leak information. Daniel Ellsberg, for example, was only spared jail time for leaking the Pentagon Papers because the case was thrown out after the Nixon administration formed a small group—the plumbers—and broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. And as Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Edward Snowden, and other targets of the “War on Whistleblowers” have learned, leaking national security information carries severe penalties. But because the newspapers that publish their disclosures are free from reprisal, the classification system is seen as compatible with First Amendment guarantees of press freedom.

As a result, the press relies on off-the-record disclosures to provide the public access to classified information. Leaks are habitual in American government, but they provide a poor guarantee of the public’s right to information. The fact that it remains illegal to leak classified information to the press means that government employees are disinclined to leak without at least tacit approval from the administration. A reliance on leaks and insider access creates press dependence on officials and anonymous sources, which undermines the autonomy of journalists to criticize government policy, makes it hard for the public to assess the accuracy and provenance of leaked information, and can lead to government manipulation of the news (think of weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the Iraq War). In other words, while the press retains its freedom to publish, the failure to confront the secrecy regime has undermined the public’s ability to access information.

The crises that beset the press today are a direct consequence of this longer history of press freedom. The rise of the internet created more opportunities for Americans to circulate their own opinions while simultaneously undermining the economic system that had paid for the reporting of new information. The result was the creation of a vacuum, into which flooded clickbait, fake news, and endless commentary. Meanwhile, important information about national security affairs only leaks out in partial form. The ongoing Russian investigation provides, in miniature, a parody of the process—the security branches and the president’s team issue statements without evidence the public is asked only to trust the authority of these various leakers.

When we think only about the freedoms of the press and speech, it is tempting to try to solve these problems by scaling back our commitment to the First Amendment. Why protect the rights of purveyors of fake news? But when we refocus our attention on the problems of public access to information, it is possible to maintain our commitment to First Amendment rights. The real challenge is not to drive bad information out of the polity, to ensure that citizens do not consume false news or bad opinions—a quixotic goal that could only lead to censorship. The challenge is rather to ensure that important information is available to the public. Initiatives for greater transparency would help: rolling back the runaway classification system, providing protections for national security whistleblowers, and reforming FOIA. Dedicated efforts to fund new initiatives in reporting would help as well. Whether that money comes from philanthropists, from discerning subscribers, or (less likely) from public funds, the key is that the money flows to those breaking news about policy, local governance, and social problems—money should not be siphoned off to support hot takes.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Americans provided the press unprecedented freedom to publish what it wanted, but did not build equally robust protections for the public’s right to access information. Today, Americans are once again beginning to realize that freedom of the press alone cannot produce a democratic media. The task now is to protect and revitalize the public’s ability to access high-quality information, what Walter Lippmann once called the “stream of news.”


Sam Lebovic is Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University, where he also directs the history Ph.D. program and serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of Social History. He is the author of Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America (2016), which was awarded the 2017 Ellis Hawley Prize by the OAH.


[1]Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News (1920 2008), 33, 37, 41.

[2]Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public: A Sequel to “Public Opinion” (1927), 155.

[3]Raymond Gram Swing, Forerunners of American Fascism (1935), 134–152.

[4]“Ickes and Gannett Debate Free Press,” New York Times, Jan. 13, 1939, p. 14.

[5]Elisha Hanson, “Says AP Ruling will Lead to Regulation of the Press,” Editor and Publisher, Nov. 13, 1943, p. 8.

[6]A. J. Liebling, The Press (1961 1975), 8, 32.

[7]“Moss Committee Vital to Public Information,” Editor and Publisher, Jan. 26, 1957, p. 62 James S. Pope, “Freedom is Indivisible,” Nieman Reports, 7 (Jan. 1953), 31.,

How Freedom of the Press Works

Freedom of speech is anything but a modern concept. For thousands of years, humans have wrestled with the idea of allowing other people to speak their minds as they wish.

In 399 B.C.E., Socrates was put to death for daring to question Roman religious practices. In 1633, Galileo was harassed by the Spanish Inquisition for claiming that the sun did not revolve around the Earth.

Since then freedom of speech has evolved in myriad ways. But it's so vital to modern life that in the ashes of World War II, the United Nations saw fit to enshrine the ideal in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."

Within this declaration is an implication of a free press. (The UN's resolution 59 takes this even further by saying freedom of information is a fundamental human right.) People ought to be able to express their ideas through any form. However, there's a key difference between freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech means that you can express your opinions without being punished. Freedom of the press is about distribution — you can publish and disseminate news and opinions without fear of intervention and retaliation.

Many countries include press privileges in their governmental framework. Some back it up. Others do not [source: World Democracy Audit]. In the U.S., freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution and reads as follows:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" [source: Constitute Project].

UNESCO, in keeping with its Constitution, advocates the basic human right of freedom of expression, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and its corollary, press freedom. Indeed, since its creation in 1945, UNESCO has been called upon to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”, and the Organization’s Member States have repeatedly confirmed this mandate over the years in decisions adopted by the General Conference, the highest authority of the United Nations agency. UNESCO promotes freedom of expression and freedom of the press as a basic human right.

Public’s right of access to information

A free press is not a luxury that can wait for better times rather, it is part of the very process which can bring about better times. Freedom of the press should not be viewed solely as the freedom of journalists to report and comment. It is strongly correlated with the public’s right of access to knowledge and information. Communication often acts as a catalyst for the development of civil society and the full exercise of free expression enables all parts of society to exchange views and find solutions to social, economic and political problems. Free media play a crucial role in building consensus and sharing information, both essential to democratic decision-making and to social development.

In keeping with this mandate UNESCO has been working with professional organizations, and a wide range of governmental, as well as non-governmental partners, on several fronts to build up, support and defend free, independent and pluralistic media in developing countries, countries in transition and in conflict and post conflict areas.

UNESCO maintains close relations with regional and international media organizations and press freedom advocacy groups. One of its major partners is the electronic clearing-house and alert network, IFEX, which groups 500 member organizations in 130 countries. Since 1992, IFEX has facilitated the sharing of information about press freedom and the efficiency of reactions to cases of violations.

Professional training for journalists

UNESCO recognizes that media independence and freedom of information do not hinge only on the capacity of private individuals to operate media outlets it also requires a commitment to professional standards of reporting. Thus UNESCO’s work includes advocacy, professional training for journalists and media professionals, and support for professional networks, as well as providing governments with advice and information on best practices regarding media legislation and regulation.

World Press Freedom Day

Amidst the growing recognition of the importance of press freedom for democracy and development, in 1993 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that May 3 is “World Press Freedom Day”. Throughout the world, this Day serves as an occasion to celebrate press freedom, raise awareness of violations against the right to freedom of expression and draw attention to the work of all too many journalists forced to brave death or jail to bring people their daily news. It is also on World Press Freedom Day that UNESCO awards the annual UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to a journalist who has distinguished him or herself in the fight for press freedom.

UNESCO is increasingly being asked to assist, together with the other United Nations system organizations, funds and programmes, in seeking solutions in conflict prevention, emergency assistance, and post-conflict peace-building. Freedom of the press, pluralism and independence of the media, and development of community newspapers and radio stations are crucial tothe re-establishment of social bonds and to the reconciliation process.

Assistance to Media in Conflict Situations

For several years now, UNESCO has been supporting independent media in conflict and post-conflict situations to enable them to gather and disseminate non-partisan information. In this respect, the assistance provided to independent media in Afghanistan, Angola, the Balkans, East Timor, the Great Lakes Region in Africa, Iraq, Liberia, the Middle East, Nepal, Sudan and elsewhere has contributed to peace building and reconciliation processes. This action in promoting independent media in conflict situations has been recognized by the international community. The humanitarian nature of this work was recognized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Department of Humanitarian Affairs in the June 1994 United Nations Inter-Agency Appeal. In 1996 the Appeal designated UNESCO as lead agency for assistance to independent media for the reconstruction period in the former Yugoslavia. Since then the Organization has received considerable financial support from a number of donor countries. In conflict areas, information is very often replaced by rumors and propaganda. UNESCO will therefore continue to support, together with the United Nations and professional organizations, local media whose independence of the parties to the conflict is acknowledged, which provide non-partisan information and which defend the values of peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding.

Importance Of A Free Press

A free press is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but no right is truly guaranteed. Despite the United States’ historic role as a global champion of free speech, the nation often receives less-than-stellar marks when it comes to protecting the press (the United States is ranked only 45th out of 180 countries in a report on media freedom).

Freedom of the press is important because it plays a vital role in informing citizens about public affairs and monitoring the actions of government at all levels. While the media may be unpopular —43 percent of Americans say the media supports democracy “very poorly” or “poorly,” a Knight Foundation/Gallup report found — this role should not be forgotten.

To protect our rights, we must understand our rights. Here are four fundamental facts we should all remember about freedom of the press:

Media-bashing is as old as the nation itself. George Washington once referred testily to the “infamous scribblers” who covered his administration. But our revolutionary forefathers knew that when the press examines the actions of government, the nation benefits. News organizations expose corruption and cover-ups, deceptions and deceits, illegal actions and unethical behavior—and they hold our leaders and our institutions accountable, whether it’s a rural county in Kentucky or the state government in Illinois.

Freedom of the Press Quotes

“Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates,” Benjamin Franklin declared. By sharing knowledge and sparking debate, a free press invigorates and educates the nation’s citizens. Freedom will be “a short-lived possession” unless the people are informed, Thomas Jefferson once said. To quote John Adams: “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of the state.”

The Bill of Rights was modeled after the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in 1776. During the Constitutional Convention, Mason and other Anti-Federalists, including James Monroe and Patrick Henry, believed that the U.S. Constitution failed to place specific limits on the government’s power. That led to the eventual creation of the Bill of Rights and its ten amendments, written by James Madison.

What does the First Amendment say about freedom of the press?

The First Amendment is one of the great statements in the history of human rights. It declares: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That means the government cannot punish you for your views, thoughts, or words, even if they’re unpopular save for very narrow limits. But we the people can say what we think—and the press can perform its essential role: To agitate, investigate, and scrutinize our leaders and institutions. That freedom is the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship.

The press is under attack.

Threats against journalists aren’t new. The Sedition Act of 1798 prohibited the publishing of “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government, and was “perhaps the most grievous assault on free speech in the history of the United States,” writes Geoffrey Stone, author of Perilous Times—Free Speech in Wartime. Antiwar journalists were arrested in World War I and during the Red Scare. In 1971, the U.S. government attempted to cease publication of the Pentagon Papers. Journalists such as former New York Times reporter Judith Miller have chosen jail sentences rather than reveal confidential sources, and in 2007, Joe Arpaio, then sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona—agitated by investigations into his commercial real estate transactions by the Phoenix New Times—arrested journalists at their homes on false charges.

Today, reporters face an increasingly hostile environment. Journalists and freelance writers have been forced to hand over cell phones and other devices to border agents for inspection when exiting or entering the United States, the nonprofit Committee to Project Journalists reports. Border agents have also interrogated them about everything from private conversations to their social media posts.

At a local level, journalists were arrested at least 34 times in 2017, according to Reporters Without Borders. Nine journalists were arrested for covering protests in St. Louis, the group reports, and a journalist in North Dakota was arrested for covering a Dakota Access pipeline protest. Reporter Dan Heyman was jailed in West Virginia last year after asking then Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price a question about healthcare legislation (the charge was willful disruption of state government processes). On a national level, the President has retweeted violent memes against CNN and railed against reporters and news outlets that criticize his administration, even stating that certain media outlets should lose their broadcasting licenses. He has called the press “enemies of the people,” a phrase also used by 20 th century authoritarians.

The Trump administration’s proposed tariffs could also hurt the newspaper industry. Newsprint is the second largest expense for small papers after human resources costs, according to the National Newspaper Association, and the White House is calling for tariffs of up to 32 percent on uncoated groundwood paper. That would be a major blow for an industry already suffering from layoffs and downsizing: From January 2001 to September 2016, the number of newspaper jobs fell from 412,000 to 174,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Thomas Jefferson once quipped that he’d rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. He changed his mind, however, after the presidential campaign of 1800, when he endured the scrutiny of the press. Politicians from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump have complained about the media, which means the press is doing its job. Journalists are watchdogs—not cheerleaders. They ignite dialogue on essential issues. They share the truths that powerful people would rather conceal. They are the force that holds our leaders accountable for their actions.

Why is freedom of the press important in a democracy?

When our leaders threaten journalists, they are threatening the First Amendment, along with our most basic rights. “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press,” said Jefferson, “and that cannot be limited without being lost.”


In an open democratic society, freedom of speech and press is essential. The citizens of that country should be able to criticize their government and be free to express themselves over certain issues, even for issues that are unpopular and sometimes unorthodox. For hundreds of years English law did not believe this to be true because of their laws limiting criticism of the government and state’s religion. After new acts and laws have passed, organizations such as Reporters Without Boarders find England to be one of the freest countries in the world. [1]

Historical Background

England is part of the United Kingdom which consists of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Acts of Union of 1707 brought together the kingdom of Scotland and England. England is an island located northwest of France in the Atlantic Ocean and is connected to Scotland. The population of Britain is 63,047,162 and more than 90 percent of the population are white and speak English.[2] Over 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas like London, which is the capital. The current English government is a Constitutional Monarchy with a Parliament. The English Parliament ultimately runs the country and consists of the appointed House of Lords and the elected House of Commons.[3] There are three main political parties in England: the Conservative, Liberal Democrats and the Labor Party. England has been a frontrunner in economics, military and industry for many years. England ruled over the Thirteen Colonies in America in the 1600s and 1700s, but because of England’s oppressive government on issues like freedom of expression and religion, the United States officially broke free from England in 1783.

Historically, England has some of the strictest laws on freedom of the press. In 1538, King Henry VIII issued a licensing law for all publications.[4] The law proclaimed that anyone who wanted to print something, from books to shipping schedules, had to have a license.[5] This law prevented the publication of opinions with which the King did not agree. This was called prior restraint, which was action taken by the government to prohibit publication of a document before it is distributed to the public.[6] The citizens protested this law for example, the poet John Milton’s speech, “Areopagitica—A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.[7]” Eventually, when Parliament overthrew King Charles they abolished the licensing system, but enacted their own licensing laws which ended in 1694.[8]

Another law that prohibited freedom of the press in England was the law of seditious libel and defamation. The seditious libel law made it a crime to publish anything disrespectful of the state, church or their officers.[9] This law was punishable by death, even if the claim was true. Truth was not a defense for seditious libel, if a person’s reputation was harmed, the offender could be punished. In the 9th century King Alfred the Great believed that people guilty of slander should get their tongues cut out.[10] The laws in England no longer end in the loss of one’s tongue, but there are financial penalties. One prominent libel case in England was the “McLibel” case. This case was between McDonald’s and two members of the London Greenpeace, a local activist group, David Morris and Helen Steel. The organization published a pamphlet, “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s?” and handed them out in front of McDonald’s restaurants. McDonald’s sued, but Morris and Steel fought the longest libel case in England’s history, it lasted for 2 and a half years. McDonald’s was rewarded £96,000 in damages, but their reputation was harmed by the claims in the pamphlet.[11]

Free Speech

Over the past few years, England has increased the freedom of the press. In 2009, after a long struggle by free speech campaigns, the United Kingdom’s government abolished the laws on seditious libel and criminal defamation.[12] For hundreds of years these laws have not allowed for criticism of the government and now journalists and the media are free to criticize the government. In April of 2012 the United Kingdom has said that open justice is an essential principle of the constitution, and the public has the right to obtain copies of documents submitted in court cases.[13] The decision came from a case where The Guardian newspaper wanted to obtain copies of the briefs and evidence in an extradition case used by the court. The newspaper requested information for a piece they were working on. At first the court did not believe the public should be allowed these documents for a number of reasons. Eventually, the court reaffirmed the idea of open justice and now allows public to see documents submitted in court cases which allows for greater freedom of the press.

In England, before the time of a democratic Parliament, laws under the Monarch were very strict. Freedom of speech, similar to the freedom of press in England, had been stifled by government. Government created laws to ban the public’s criticism of government. In the 1600s John Locke, the English philosopher, believed that government censorship was an improper exercise of power and freedom of expression is a natural right.[14] Many years after John Locke, England agreed with the philosopher when the United Kingdom joined the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is a group that is aimed at furthering the realization of human rights and personal freedoms in Europe. Now, citizens in England have the freedom of expression in accordance with the law under Article 10 of this document. The right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right, it must fall under the conditions and restrictions of law, but it does give more freedom to speech in England.[15] One of the laws that restrict freedom of expression is the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred in England. The Race Relations Act of 1976 says that a person commits an offense if: he publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting or if he uses in any public place or meeting words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.[16] In 2006, a man was convicted of inciting racial hatred during a protest against cartoons which were offensive to Islam. Mizanuar Rahman said that soldiers should be brought back from Iraq in body bags and a jury found him guilty for using words with the intent to incite racial hatred.[17]

Currently in England, a teenager is accused for making offensive comments about the deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan. Azhar Ahmed was charged under the Communications Act of 2003 and faces a racially aggravated charge.[18] Azhar ranted about the deaths of these soldiers getting more attention than innocent families in Afghanistan that have been killed. Azhar tells the soldiers to “DIE & go to HELL! The LOWLIFE FOOKIN SCUM!”.[19] While these may be offensive words to a soldier and their families, one could argue that this is not racially offensive and the young man should not be charged for racially aggravated words.

Comparison Between England and the United States

England in comparison to the United States on freedom of press has similarities and differences. The freedom of press in England has evolved and improved since the times of the Licensing Acts, similar to the United States and the Alien and Sedition Acts. The big difference between the two countries concerning freedom of press is the issue of libel. Historically, the United States left the cases on libel up to the states to decide until New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964. In this case the court sets a new precedent not allowing public officials to silence their critics. The court believes that the press has the right to criticize a public figure. After this case, it has been very difficult for the plaintiff to prove actual malice and be awarded damages. In England, libel cases are much easier to win. A 2009 newspaper article claimed that libel cases were at a record high in Britain because celebrities use the British courts to silence their critics. In 2009 alone, there were 298 defamation cases in England, and most of these were from foreigners.[20] According to the Daily News article, many publishers cannot afford the cost of a libel trial, so they pay the damages to avoid the expensive trial.[21] This suggests that the freedom of the press in the United States is much freer than in England. In the United States, the press can freely criticize a public figure—a celebrity or public official, without worrying about defamation or a libel case.

Similar to freedom of the press, freedom of speech is freer in the United States than in England. Although England promises freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, it is still very limited. The big issue of inciting racial hatred in England has been an issue in the United States, too. Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 demonstrates freedom of speech in the United States when Clarence Brandenburg, a KKK member said that all African-Americans should be sent back to Africa and spouting other racial hatred speech. Brandenburg was convicted, but the USSC overturned his conviction. Also, in the case R.A.V v. City of Saint Paul, a minor burned a cross in the fenced-in yard of an African-American family and was not convicted because it was freedom of expression. In England, in 2010 a boy pleaded guilty to inciting racial hatred after he put a video on Youtube which showed a Black man getting hanged by the KKK.[22] This suggests that the United States has more freedom when it comes to speech and expression then England does.

Since the Thirteen Colonies officially split with England in 1783, the United States have furthered freedom of speech, press and religion to her citizens. United States citizens pride themselves on the First Amendment and the evolution of those freedoms during the past 236 years. The United States has had ground breaking cases like New York Times v. Sullivan and Texas v. Johnson which expanded both freedom of speech and press. England’s laws over personal freedoms have also evolved since the democratic Parliament has gained more power, but in comparison to the United States, the United States has greater freedom of speech, press and expression.

Watch the video: Freedom of the Press: Crash Course Government and Politics #26 (June 2022).


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