Freedom of the press in the United States

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Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This clause is generally understood as a means to prevent the government from interfering with the distribution of information and opinions. Nonetheless, freedom of the press is subject to certain restrictions, such as the defamation law.


During the time of the British colonies in America, prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the media was subject to a series of regulations. British authorities attempted to prohibit the publication and circulation of information that in which that they did not approve.

Freedom of press during the time of the Thirteen Colonies[edit]

Main article: Thirteen Colonies

Some of the earliest cases of freedom of the press occurred in 1733 and 1744, while still under British colonial rule. During a trial against the authors of The New York Weekly Journal by British governor William Cosby, the publication was found not guilty and continued circulation of their publication until 1751. At that time, there were only two newspapers in the US, though the second newspaper was not critical of Cosby's government.

First Amendment to the United States Constitution[edit]

The Free Press Clause protects the right of individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without interference, constraint or prosecution by the government.[1][2] The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

20th century[edit]

Near v. Minnesota[edit]

Main article: Near v. Minnesota

In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Near v. Minnesota recognized the freedom of the press by roundly rejecting prior restraints on publication, a principle that was applied to free speech generally in subsequent jurisprudence. The Court ruled that a Minnesota law that targeted publishers of "malicious" or "scandalous" newspapers violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (as applied through the Fourteenth Amendment).

Branzburg v. Hayes[edit]

Freedom of press was described in Branzburg v. Hayes as "a fundamental personal right" that is not confined to newspapers and periodicals.[3] In Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938),[4] Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes defined press as "every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion."[5] This right has been extended to media including newspapers, books, plays, movies, and video games.[6]

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan[edit]

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964): The Supreme Court held that when a publication involves a public figure, in order to support a suit for libel, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the publisher acted with "actual malice," meaning that the publisher knew of the inaccuracy of the statement or acted with reckless disregard as to the truth of the statement.

New York Times Co. v. United States[edit]

In 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

21st century[edit]

At one time, it was an open question whether people who blog or use other social media are journalists entitled to protection by media shield laws.[7] They are protected equally by the Free Speech Clause and the Free Press Clause, because neither clause differentiates between media businesses and nonprofessional speakers.[1][2][8][9] This is further evidenced by the United States Supreme Court who constantly refused to grant increased First Amendment protection to the institutional media over other speakers.[10][11][12] For example, in a case involving campaign finance laws, the Court rejected the "suggestion that communication by corporate members of the institutional press is entitled to greater constitutional protection than the same communication by" non-institutional-press businesses.[13]

Stop Online Piracy Act[edit]

On October 26, 2011, the "Stop Online Piracy Act" bill, which opponents claimed would threaten free speech and censor the internet, was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama "will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression."[14] The bill was shelved in 2012 following widespread protests and backlash.[15]

Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox[edit]

On 2014, blogger Crystal Cox accused Obsidian and Kevin D. Padrick of corrupt and fraudulent conduct. The court dismissed most of Cox's blog posts as opinion but found one single post to be more factual in its assertions and therefore defamatory.

It was for the first time[16][17] ruled by a decision of The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit[18] that a blogger is entitled to the same free speech protections as a traditional journalist and cannot be liable for defamation unless the blogger acted negligently.[19] The Ninth Circuit court essentially said journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to the First Amendment[16] because the "protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others' writings, or tried to get both sides of a story."[20][18]:11–12

Ranking of United States press freedom[edit]

Main article: Press Freedom Index

Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, ranked the United States 30th out of 197 countries in terms of press freedom in 2014.[21] The report lauded the constitutional protections given to American journalists, but it criticized authorities for placing undue limits on investigative reporting in the name of national security. Freedom House awards countries a score out of 100, with 0 representing most free and 100 representing least free. The score is broken down into three, separately weighted, categories: legal (out of 30), political (out of 40), and economic (out of 30) environments. The United States scored a 6, 10, and 5 respectively, earning a cumulative score of 21.[22]

As of February 12, 2014, the United States is ranked 46th in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.[23] This is a measure of freedom available to the press, which encompasses areas such as government censorship, and is not indicative of the quality of journalism. There was a fall from 20th in 2010 to 42nd in 2012, which was attributed to arrests of journalists covering the Occupy movement.[24]

Comparatively, for 2012, Finland and Norway tied for 1st worldwide. Canada ranked 10th, Germany tied 17th with Jamaica, and Japan tied 22nd with Suriname. The UK ranked 28th, Australia 30th, and France 38th. Extraterritorial regions of the US ranked 57th.

Freedom of the Press in the Obama Administration[edit]

After promising to create the most transparent administration in history in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential elections, the Obama administration's policy in this regard has been criticized as being contradictory. The Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder vigorously pursued James Rosen, a New York Times reporter, and subpoenaed him during the trial of Jeffrey Sterling. Mr. Risen described President Obama as the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.[25]

Notable Exceptions[edit]

In 1798, a short time following the adoption of the Constitution, the governing Federalist Party attempted to stifle criticism by means of the Alien and Sedition Acts. (It was notable that the Sedition Act made criticism of Congress, and of the President, a crime, but not criticism of the Vice-President. Jefferson, a non-Federalist, was Vice-President at the time the Act was passed.) These restrictions on Freedom of the Press proved very unpopular in the end and worked against the Federalists, leading to the party's eventual demise. Thomas Jefferson was among those who opposed the Acts, and did so vehemently, and he was elected President in the election of 1800. Jefferson then pardoned most of those convicted under the Acts. He made it a principle not to ask what they had done, but only whether they had been charged under the Acts. In his first Inaugural Address in 1801 he reiterated his longstanding commitment to Freedom of Speech and of the Press: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

In mid-August 1861, four newspapers in New York City: New York Daily News, Journal of Commerce, Day Book, and Freeman’s Journal were all given a presentment by a Grand Jury of the United States Circuit Court for "frequently encouraging the rebels by expressions of sympathy and agreement". This began a series of federal prosecutions of newspapers throughout the Northern United States during the Civil War which printed expressions of sympathy for Southern causes or criticisms of the Lincoln Administration. Lists of "peace newspapers" that had been published in protest by the New York Daily News were used to conduct planned retributions. The Bangor Democrat, in Maine, was one of these newspapers, where assailants, believed to be part of a covert Federal raid, destroyed the Press and set the newspaper facility ablaze.[26] These actions all followed various "executive orders" issued by President Lincoln, including his eighth order on August 7, 1861, which made it both illegal and punishable by death to hold "correspondence with" or give "intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly". This was taken as explicit permission and direction for action for various State and Federal executive and legislative bodies.

The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which amended it, imposed restrictions on the Free Press during wartime. It carried fines of $10,000 and up to 20 years imprisonment for people publishing "... disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States ..." In Schenck v. United States (1919), the Supreme Court upheld the laws, setting the "Clear and present danger" standard. Congress repealed both laws in 1921, and Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) revised the "Clear and present danger" test to the "Imminent lawless action" test, which is less restrictive.

In 1988, in the case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court upheld that the principal of a school has the right to review and block controversial articles of a school paper funded by the school and published in the school's name.

In the United States in 2005, interpretation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act[by whom?] may consider political statements as being the equivalent of campaign donations. Because access to Internet statements are weakly controlled, the campaign value of statements is not known in advance and a high ultimate value may trigger large fines for violations. This particularly threatens Internet statements by individuals, and vague definitions of membership in the press make the possible effects ambiguous.

In United States v. Manning (2013), Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning was found guilty on six counts of espionage for the leak of classified information to Wikileaks. Thereby, The New York Times was prevented from publishing materials leaked by Manning.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "First Amendment: An Overview". | Wex Legal Dictionary / Encyclopedia. Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  2. ^ a b McConnell, Michael W. (November 2013). "Reconsidering Citizens United as a Press Clause Case". The Yale Law Journal. 123 2013-2014 (2 November 2013 Pages 266-529). Retrieved 19 April 2014. 
  3. ^ 408 U.S. 665 (1972)
  4. ^ Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938)
  5. ^ Lovell, at 452
  6. ^ Adam Liptak (June 27, 2011). "Justices Reject Ban on Violent Video Games for Children". The New York Times. Archived from the original on April 19, 2013. Retrieved April 19, 2013. 
  7. ^ Mataconis, Doug (May 28, 2013). "Bloggers, Media Shield Laws, And The First Amendment". Outside The Beltway. Retrieved August 9, 2013. 
  8. ^ Eugene Volokh (Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at Los Angeles School of Law of the University of California. "The American Heritage Foundatio's Guide to the Constitution: Freedom of Speech and of the Press". The American Heritage Foundation. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  9. ^ Eugene Volokh (8 January 2014). "First Amendment (United States Constitution)". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 18 April 2014. 
  10. ^ See Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001) where the U.S. Supreme Court "draw no distinction between the media respondents and" a non-institutional respondent.
  11. ^ See Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 663 (1991) where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the press gets no special immunity from laws that apply to others, including those—such as copyright law—that target communication.
  12. ^ See also Henry v. Collins, 380 U.S. 356, 357 (1965) (per curiam) (applying Sullivan standard to a statement by an arrestee); Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 67–68 (1964) (applying Sullivan standard to statements by an elected district attorney); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 286 (applying identical First Amendment protection to a newspaper defendant and individual defendants).
  13. ^ First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)
  14. ^ "Texas Insider". Texas Insider. p. 1. Retrieved January 19, 2012. 
  15. ^ "SOPA bill shelved after global protests from Google, Wikipedia and others". Washington Post. January 20, 2012. Retrieved 17 July 2016. 
  16. ^ a b Paulson, Ken (24 January 2014). "Bloggers enjoy First Amendment protection against libel suits". First Amendment Center. Retrieved 2 February 2014. In a landmark decision on Friday, a federal appellate court held for the first time that blogs enjoy the same First Amendment protection from libel suits as traditional news media. 
  17. ^ Hull, Tim (17 January 2014). "Blogger's Speech Rights Championed in the 9th". Courthouse News Service. Retrieved 2 February 2014. I think it sets an important precedent that bloggers, for First Amendment purposes, have the same rights as others do, as for example the institutional media does," Volokh said in a phone interview. "There have been plenty of past cases around the circuits that point in that direction, but this is the first time that the 9th Circuit has specifically ruled on this, and this is one of the cases that has focused on bloggers. Most cases have dealt with other nonprofessional media, but this one is particularly the first clear blogging case that I know from the circuit courts. 
  18. ^ a b Arthur L. Alarcón, Milan D. Smith, Jr., and Andrew D. Hurwitz (17 January 2014). "United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit case Obsidian Finance Group LLC and Kevin Padrick vs. Crystal Cox (12-35238)" (PDF). United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit case. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 
  19. ^ Levine, Dan (17 January 2014). "Blogger gets same speech protections as traditional press: U.S. court". Reuters. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 
  20. ^ Hull, Tim (17 January 2014). "Blogger's Speech Rights Championed in the 9th". Courthouse News Service. Retrieved 2 February 2014. 
  21. ^ "Press Freedom Rankings - Freedom House". 
  22. ^ "United States - Country report - Freedom of the Press - 2014". 
  23. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on February 14, 2014. Retrieved July 7, 2016. 
  24. ^ Jack Mirkinson (January 25, 2012). "Press Freedom Index: Occupy Wall Street Journalist Arrests Cost U.S. Dearly In Latest Survey". Huffington Post. 
  25. ^ Joanna Walters (August 17, 2014). "James Risen calls Obama 'greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation'". The Guardian. 
  26. ^ Words at War: The Civil War and American Journalism by David B. Sachsman, Purdue University Press, 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Tran, Jasper (2016). "Press Clause and 3D Printing". Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property. 14: 75. 
  • Epps, Garrett and David B. Oppenheimer. Freedom of the Press: The First Amendment: Its Constitutional History and the Contemporary Debate (2008)
  • Martin, Robert W.T. The Free and Open Press: The Founding of American Democratic Press Liberty, 1640-1800 (2012).
  • Nelson, Harold Lewis, ed. Freedom of the Press from Hamilton to the Warren Court (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1967)
  • Powe, Lucas A. The Fourth Estate and the Constitution: Freedom of the Press in America (Univ of California Press, 1992)
  • Ross, Gary. Who Watches the Watchmen?: The Conflict Between National Security and Freedom of the Press (2015)