Backgrounder Understanding Freedom of the Press a free Press is a Vital First Amendment Right

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Classroom Law Project Selecting the Next President


Understanding Freedom of the Press

A Free Press is a Vital First Amendment Right
© Theresa Willingham, Aug 28, 2008

Our founders based their commitment to a free press on their knowledge and personal experience with a society that strictly prohibited it.

Today's youth are immersed in a multitude of media and probably don't appreciate how difficult it once was to obtain information of any kind. Helping them understand the history and purpose of the free press clause in the First Amendment will help them understand the value of free expression beyond the enjoyment of their iPods and cell phones.
The First Amendment says:

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.

English Free Press...with Limits
English law did not look fondly upon free expression. 18th century English legal commentator, Sir William Blackstone, declared that while a free press was important, it could and should be limited.

“… Every freeman has undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; ... but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.” (Commentaries on the Laws of England 1765.)

Of course, determining what was “improper” or "immoral" or “mischievous” were highly subjective practices.

A Government Press
John Hancock wrote newspapers in the British colonies in North America published "by authority" in the early 1700s , under license from and as a vehicle for colonial governors. The first independent newspaper in the colonies was the New-England Courant, published in Boston by Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, James, in 1721. Later, Benjamin Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette of Philadelphia, which became the leading newspaper of the colonial era.
At that time, newspapers could publish fairly freely, but were subject to accusations of sedition or libel if they offended the wrong people. The trial of John Peter Zenger, the American colonist who was tried for sedition and acquitted in 1735 when he published articles critical of New York Governor William Cosby, set the stage for free press issues to come.

Revolutionary News
A free press became a rallying cry for Revolutionary era leaders and writers. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) declared that "the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments." The Constitution of Massachusetts, in 1780, also stated, "The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth."
Our founders came to agree, writing freedom of the press into our First Amendment in 1791.

Early Challenges
Just seven years after the adoption of the Constitution, the Alien and Sedition Acts were adopted, making it a crime to publish writings critical of Congress and the President. Notably missing from criminal reprisal was criticism of the Vice President, then Thomas Jefferson, against whom the Alien and Sedition Act was aimed.
The Act ultimately worked against the Federalists responsible for its passage. Jefferson became president despite the effort, and eventually pardoned everyone charged under the Act.
The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 resurrected restrictions on the press during World War I, until both were repealed in 1921 as unconstitutional.
Our founders saw freedom of the press as integral to a free nation. This was a natural conclusion based on their relatively recent history of a censured press that was little more than a vehicle for government propaganda. The Revolutionary War period was a turning point for previously government run media, ushering in a new era of outspokenness that informed and inspired citizens to freedom from government tyranny.

The copyright of the article Understanding Freedom of the Press in K-12 Subject Guides is owned by Theresa Willingham.

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