Freedom of the Press

Dwight Teeter

in Communication

ISBN: 9780199756841
Published online February 2011 | | DOI:
Freedom of the Press


Freedom of the press refers to the freedom to criticize government without suffering official interference or punishment, before or after publication. “Freedom of the press,” “freedom of speech,” and “freedom of expression” are terms often used together in the United States, with “the press” primarily connoting print and electronic media. This bibliography concentrates on freedom of the press as defined by some major American and English writers and in decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. Because of the advent of electronic media and of the internet and of other “new media” or “social media” during the 20th and early 21st centuries, the term “freedom of the press” is used to cover mediated communication in general. The clearest indicator of press freedom is that opponents of government or of government leaders, laws, or policies can publish effective criticisms without suffering government retaliation in the form of fines, imprisonment, or even death. That definition does not include communications that may break laws of general applicability, such as the law of fraud, nor violation of a contract. It also does not cover extralegal controls such a communicator’s sense of the community’s range of permissible expression, or public pressures (including mob action) against the press in times of crisis. The legal definition of “freedom of the press” in the United States begins with the forty-five words of the First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted 15 December 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, 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.” The absolute words of prohibition against congressional statutes tampering with speech or press freedom were, however, overridden early in the nation’s history by Congress in 1798, just seven years after the adoption of the First Amendment. Congress then passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which, among other things, made it a crime to criticize the federal government or government leaders. These short-lived enactments, which fueled bitter partisan controversy in the new nation, are discussed in the Historical Context section. Freedom of the press is not static: it rises in times of peace and diminishes in times of war or national crisis, when most needed by society.

Article.  9933 words. 

Subjects: Communication Studies

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