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The First Amendment Right of Freedom of the Press

First Amendment
The 1st Amendment guarantees 5 basic freedoms.

Constitution Ratification Led to Implementing Freedoms

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention completed the United States Constitution, they faced the difficult job of getting it ratified. 

Many state leaders were concerned that the Constitution did not include adequate freedoms. Without guaranteeing these freedoms, prominent leaders in the states threatened to work against ratifying the Constitution.

Origin of the Bill of Rights

To gain support for the United States Constitution, the framers promised that specific amendments would be added. Ten amendments in all were soon adopted that collectively became known as the Bill of Rights.

Five Freedoms Promised by First Amendment

The First Amendment, ratified as part of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, guaranteed five specific freedoms. The First Amendment provides freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press

This article will examine the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

Press conference
The 1st Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press.

Similar Freedoms in One Amendment

The First Amendment guarantees separate but related freedoms. These five freedoms were grouped into one amendment because they are all areas of self-expression. 

Though some of the 1st Amendment rights deal more with verbal expression, they all can deal with printed forms of expression.

For instance, with the freedom of religion, a person has the right to worship in ways that best follow that religion. This freedom gives practitioners of that religion the right to publish religious material that supports their religious views.

The freedom to petition the government is primarily an activity conducted with the printed word.

Media studio
Freedom of the press applies to a broad range of media.

Additionally, freedom of speech is a verbal activity, but people are free to publish transcripts of lectures and debates. 

In the same way, the freedom of assembly is a physical activity, but those who gather are free to distribute printed material during the gathering.

We usually think of the freedom of the press as referring to newspapers, but broadly speaking, it refers to any printed material.

How the 1st Amendment Is Applied

It is also important to note that the First Amendment applies to all people living in the country. Therefore, there are no citizenship, age, or political affiliation restrictions.

United States passport
The 1st Amendment applies to all United States residents, regardless of their citizenship status.

The right to print what you like also means that the government cannot require you to write anything you do not want to print. 

Freedom of the press also means that you cannot be prevented from reading the words of others. People living in the United States have the right to access information.

Definition of Freedom of the Press

Like the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, freedom of the press is a right to expression. 

The obvious difference is that free speech is verbal and freedom of the press applies to what is printed.

Supreme Court protest
1st Amendment rights being exercised outside the Supreme Court.

More specifically, this First Amendment protection is the right of an author to have their work published by others. 

However, it is not a guarantee of total non-interference from outside entities because, as freedom has been defined, there are some good sense restrictions.

The word “the” is also important in understanding the meaning of freedom of the press. As journalist A. J. Why summarized the freedom, 

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

In other words, in the minds of the writers of the First Amendment, “the press” refers to publishers of newspapers and periodicals. 

As such, freedom of the press provides publishers complete control over the ideas and opinions or any information they wish to publish. This freedom also includes the right to refuse to publish something and be free from any coercion.

The provision of the freedom of the press creates a vibrant marketplace to field ideas with a wide range of opinions. A free press provides a platform for both the free expression of ideas and the dissemination of information.

The Fourth Estate

Journalists and publishers are free to print material critical of the President and other government members without fear of prosecution, intervention, or censorship. 

President Donald J. Trump
President Trump came in for much criticism during his time in the White House.

Therefore, the First Amendment freedom of the press sets up an environment of creating a watchdog of government activities. 

This environment is critical to maintaining a democracy, where the free press holds the government accountable for its actions, serving the needs of the people and not the government.

Through the First Amendment, what is meant by the press has been expanded to many other media. For example, the press includes magazines, academic journals, pamphlets, billboards, and advertisements. 

Additionally, the definition of the press has also come to include electronic and digital forms of news media.

Sensible Restrictions to Freedom of the Press

How far do the First Amendment freedoms go? 

Are there limits to the freedoms spelled out in the amendment?

Lady Justice statue
There are certain limitations on press freedom.

The courts have had to wrangle with this issue because of freedoms without some limitations. But unfortunately, these limitations mean the potential for those freedoms to infringe on other rights and liberties. 

The irony of freedom is that it has to have boundaries for it to be observed.

Limitations on press freedom

Freedom of the press requires parameters and limitations in place. Here are some of the limits to freedom of the news media:

  • A person is not protected from printing false information.
  • A person cannot print false information about another person, known as libel.
  • A person cannot publish information that compromises the security of the nation. This limitation is known as the “clear and present danger” test. 
  • A person cannot print information that would harm the country or undermine its security.
  • Also, under the definition of the freedom of the press, reporters cannot be forced to reveal their confidential sources for the news stories they publish.

The Freedom of the Press, Essential to Democracy

Today, people living in the United States benefit significantly from the enlightened thinking of those who wrote the First Amendment.

James Madison
Founding Father, James Madison.

Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood that there needed to be checks and balances to the powers given to the government members.

The rights provided in the First Amendment, such as the freedom of the press, help monitor and maintain the quality of the democracy United States residents enjoy.

2 Responses

  1. This Amendment regarding “Freedom of Press” protects the Publishing media from publishing what they want. I see one grave big-hole in this conept. The Freedom of Press given is OK but there is nothing what the Press should or must publish. What I am hinting is the practice today by major media of NOT PUBLISHING any Conservative ideas. I wish our fore-fathers had also defined what the Press is prohibited by not publishing or some equality in publishing everything. As such only message one Party is asked to do is “better conveying their message”. But if the majority of Publishing media blocks talking about certain ideas, how would the Democracy be served as needed. I hope/wish some scholar explain this missing idea from the Constitution.

  2. UNITED STATES v. ASSOCIATED PRESS et al. Nos. 57, 58 and 59. Argued Dec. 5, 6, 1944. Decided June 18, 1945
    It would be strange indeed however if the grave concern for freedom of the press which prompted adoption of the First Amendment should be read as a command that the government was without power to protect that freedom. That Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society. Surely a command that the government itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford non-governmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon that constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Freedom to publish means freedom for all and not for some. Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is not. Freedom of the press from governmental interference under the First Amendment does not sanction repression of that freedom by private interests.

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