Freedom of the press—the right to report news or circulate opinion without censorship from the government—was considered “one of the great bulwarks of liberty,” by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Americans enjoy freedom of the press as one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. New technologies, however, have created new challenges to media freedom.
The Bill of Rights provides constitutional protection for certain individual liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to assemble and petition the government.
Origins Of Free Press
Before the thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, the British government attempted to censor the American media by prohibiting newspapers from publishing unfavorable information and opinions.
One of the first court cases involving freedom of the press in America took place in 1734. British governor William Cosby brought a libel case against the publisher of The New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger, for publishing commentary critical of Cosby’s government. Zenger was acquitted.
American free press ideals can be traced back to Cato’s Letters, a collection of essays criticizing the British political system that were published widely across pre-Revolutionary America.
The essays were written by Brits John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They were published under the pseudonym of Cato between 1720 and 1723. (Cato was a statesman and outspoken critic of corruption in the late Roman Republic.) The essays called out corruption and tyranny in the British government.
A generation later, Cato’s Letters frequently were quoted in newspapers in the American colonies as a source of revolutionary political ideas.
Virginia was the first state to formally protect the press. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights stated, “The freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”
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More than a decade later, Virginia Representative (and later president of the United States) James Madison would borrow from that declaration when drafting the First Amendment.
Media Freedom And National Security
In 1971, United States military analyst Daniel Ellsberg gave copies of classified documents to The New York Times. The documents, which would become known as the Pentagon Papers, detailed a top-secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
The Pentagon Papers exposed government knowledge that the war would cost more lives than the public had been told and revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson all had misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The government obtained a court order preventing The New York Times from publishing more excerpts from the papers, arguing that the published materials were a national security threat. A few weeks later, the U.S. government sought to block publication of the papers in the Washington Post as well, but the courts refused this time.
In the New York Times Co. v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers, making it possible for The New York Times and Washington Post to publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers without risk of further government censorship.
Former CIA employee Edward Snowden leaked classified documents from the National Security Administration to newspapers in the U.K., United States and Germany in 2013. His leaks revealed several government surveillance programs and set off a global debate about government spying.
Some denounced Snowden as a traitor while others supported his actions, calling him a whistleblower and champion of media freedom.
Press Freedom Around The World
In 2017, a U.S.-based nonprofit, Freedom House, found that just 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press—a media environment where political news coverage is robust and uncensored, and the safety of journalists is guaranteed.
The United States ranked 37 of 199 countries and territories for press freedom in 2017. Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden were the top ranking countries.