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What Is Freedom of the Press?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 21, 2024
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The press refers to the agencies and people involved in collecting and conveying the news. This includes printed news outlets, such as newspapers and periodicals; broadcast news, such as radio and television news; and news spread over the Internet through websites. Freedom of the press is a concept that has to do with the relationship of the press to government.

The issue of freedom of the press arose for the first time in England in the 16th century, and then only because the press was being required to submit materials for licensing prior to publication. As the requirements grew more restrictive in the 17th century, protesters included poet John Milton, who suggested that suppression of publications found to be problematic was better than censoring them prior to publication. Nevertheless, licensing and censorship laws stayed on the books until 1695, and even when they were abolished, libel laws could be used to punish anyone who printed material that criticized the government, and truth was not an acceptable defense until the mid-19th century.

On 25 May 2009, members of the press from 19 European countries adopted the “European Charter on Freedom of the Press” at a ceremony in Hamburg and 48 journalists and editors-in-chief signed it. The ten articles are aimed at recognizing the role of freedom of the press in a democratic society and protecting the press from censorship, restrictions, threats, surveillance, and attack. The document continues to be available online for journalists to sign, if they wish.

In the United States, freedom of the press is asserted to begin with John Peter Zenger’s defense against charges of libel in 1735. Freedom of the press was specifically provided by several states following the American Revolution, and secured by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1791, where it is grouped along with freedom of speech. The attitude towards seditious libel implicit in the First Amendment has been debated, but with the passage of the Sedition Act in 1798, the First Amendment came to be understood as not intent on protecting seditious libel, but recognizing it as a crime.

In the early 21st century in the United States, the freedom of the press as protected by the First Amendment differentiates between the publication and the gathering of news: journalists are not always granted unlimited access to combat areas. Some states have passed shield laws allowing journalists to refuse to divulge both information and sources to law enforcement, but the Supreme Court has not recognized that the press has an unrestricted right to confidentiality.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for America Explained, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Nov 03, 2011

When I first became a reporter, I tried to stay away from any stories that could be deemed controversial. I know that this is strange behavior for a journalist, but I was young and afraid, and I didn't want a confrontation with the subject of my article.

As I gained more experience, I started to see some things in the local government that I felt the public had a right to know. After all, how could they change things if they had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by politicians?

An election was coming up, and I felt it was my duty to expose the truth. I reported some of the illegal activities of a candidate, and as I feared, he sued me for libel. However, freedom of the press protected me, and he got nothing.

By seag47 — On Nov 02, 2011

@wavy58 – Yes, this is the case sometimes, but overall, I think that respectable journalists adhere to a code of honor. I'm not speaking of tabloid journalists who will report anything to get ahead. I'm talking about well-known news reporters with a reputation for speaking the truth.

Sometimes, they do go against the wishes of the authorities and report a crime that has occurred in a neighborhood. However, this isn't necessarily because they want to be the one who gets the juicy story. It is often because they believe that the citizens in the area have the right to know that a criminal is amongst them, and by letting them in on this information, they enable them to protect themselves and stay alert.

By wavy58 — On Nov 01, 2011

I think that freedom of the press is frequently abused by reporters seeking to make a name for themselves. They think that the hotter and juicier the story, the further it will take them in their career.

It angers me when journalists put people in danger because of their greed. Sometimes, they report stories that the cops have asked them to keep quiet until the person of interest is caught. When the suspect sees the story on the news, it alerts him to the fact that the cops are onto him, and he has a chance to flee.

I realize that freedom of the press is an important asset, because sometimes things need to be brought to light without the reporter having to worry about legal issues. However, I think that more often than not, they misuse their constitutional right.

By Oceana — On Nov 01, 2011

I work at a newspaper, and a reporter there just had to exercise her freedom of the press. It was a precarious situation, because she had to expose the bad dealings of a businessman who was also one of our biggest advertisers.

He was a developer and a real estate agent. He frequently bought big ads in our real estate guide, so he paid over a thousand dollars to us a month. That is money that we desperately need.

However, the reporter had a job to do. She wrote an article about the fact that he owes tons of back taxes on his properties. She also described various ways that he had ripped his customers off.

He called the newspaper as soon as he read the article. He was furious, and he said he could not understand how we could do this to him when he is such a big source of revenue for us.

The reporter stood by her story. He threatened to sue her, but she told him that freedom of the press was totally constitutional.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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