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A Deeper Look on Freedom of the Press

By Katie Schultz

August 21, 2015 - 12:00 PM


The First Amendment of the the United States Constitution grants its citizens several rights, “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.”

Freedom of speech and press go hand-in-hand.

"...or of the press...," what does this mean? First of all, the press includes newspapers, magazines, television, and radio, and now some blogs and websites. Freedom of Press allows members of the press to obtain and publish information without government censorship and being fearful of punishment. Government censorship is when governments restrict the press from obtaining and releasing information that the governments might find to be threatening to them, whether it may be sensitive information or possibly damaging to their credibility.

The act of government censorship is nothing new- it has been an issue since colonial times. The case of Crown v. John Peter Zenger occurred in the 1730's, before the creation of the Constitution, in a British colonial court. Zenger was accused of libel and imprisoned. He was later acquitted after being found not guilty of printing seditious libel due to his defense, that the printing the truth is not libel.

In the last 100 years, members of the press have been censored as well, despite their now legal right to obtain and publish information. Several noteworthy cases occurred in the 1900's that questioned a person's right to publish certain information.

The case of New York Times v. United Sates (popularly referred to as "The Pentagon Papers Case") occurred in 1971. The New York Times tried to publish information about the United States government's actions concerning the Vietnam War after a military analyst at the Pentagon, Daniel Ellsberg, took the classified information from the Pentagon. President Richard Nixon issued a prior restraint against the newspaper for imposing a national security issue. A prior restraint is when the government prohibits speech or other expressions from being published before it goes to press. In court, the New York Times was accused of violating the Espionage Act; criminalizing citizens for obtaining and releasing documents and information regarding the national defense of the United States Government. The Supreme Court ruled that the Espionage Act did not apply in this case, and that the New York Times is protected under the First Amendment.

Prior restraint might only be valid if: the information actually does pose a threat to national security, if it contains obscene material, and advocating violence/overthrowing the government. 

The case of Schenck v. United States took place in 1919. Charles Schenck was arrested after he distributed pamphlets urging United States citizens to form a protest against the military draft during World War I. In his appeal (after initially being found guilty of violating the Espionage Act), he argued that the government is not allowed to censor his writings under his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government, saying that Schenck's expressions in the pamphlet were a threat to the country's safety. This case is largely referenced to this day because of a quote by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr., "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic."

What is the press limited to? Television networks are not permitted into federal courtrooms, but state court rules concerning coverage vary from state-to-state. The Federal Communications Center prohibits broadcasters from using indecent language. The press is more commonly known to be prohibited from libel, slander, and threats.

The first amendment only protects United States citizens from government punishment- not from private companies. A private employer can prohibit certain ideas, opinions, and topics from being published.

According to the Global Investigative Journalism Network, less than 14 percent of the world's countries have freedom of press in 2013- which has been reported from the non-profit organization, Freedom House, to be the lowest it has been in over a decade. 
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Comments *

1) Re: A Deeper Look on Freedom of the Press
Written by RPeachey on August 21, 2015, 04:10:37 PM
An interesting topic - in Guatemala there have recently been a lot of killings of reporters who uncover corrupt officials or drug lords.  There is supposedly freedom of press, but when the government can't protect reporters, it doesn't make it possible for reporters to carry out their role.

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