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Law and Politics

Is a Free Press Important?

The First Amendment and protecting democracy

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WHAT IT IS

  • Freedom of the press is "the right of a publisher to report news or circulate opinion without censorship from the government." [HISTORY]

  • A free press can be a way for citizens to keep their governments in check and make sure they are not overstepping their bounds. [ACLU]

  • Freedom of speech and expression is mutually exclusive with freedom of the press, with both protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. [USA Today]

 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Ratified Dec. 15, 1791

 

"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."

[National Constitution Center]

  • Apr. 2020: The World Press Freedom Index for 2020 was released, ranking the situation of journalists in 180 countries and territories. [Forbes]
  • The United States was ranked 45/180, or "Satisfactory." See the index here.
  • Around the world, the freedom of the press varies. [NPR]
  • In some countries, the government fully controls the information published by the press, both physically (hard-copies) and digitally (online). [The Guardian]
  • Free speech is proclaimed in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [The United Nations]

WHY IT MATTERS

 

CIVICS: The First Amendment protects the "free exercise" and "freedom of speech" of the press. But there are some guard rails to what the press can publish.

  • The Sedition Act of 1789 made it illegal to print anything false about the government, president, or Congress. [U.S. House of Representatives]
  • Credible, trustworthy sources follow a code of ethics and standards for journalism to hold their journalists accountable. 

SOCIAL: In order to have an informed electorate, it is necessary to have an unbiased, factual source for what is going on in the world. The press is a direct line of mass communication to the public and should not be influenced by anything other than the truth.

 

2020 World Press Freedom Index revealed the next 10 years are going to prove pivotal for press freedom due to five factors: 

  • A geopolitical crisis, driven by aggression from authoritarian regimes,
  • A technological crisis, due to a lack of democratic guarantees, 
  • A democratic crisis, due to polarization and repression,
  • A trust crisis, driven by suspicion and hatred of the press, and
  • An economic crisis, which will bankrupt quality journalism.

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

 

-Thomas Jefferson, 1787

 

LET IT BE FREE!

 The whole truth

Some believe a free press gives journalists the freedom to serve the people in pursuit of the truth, rather than promoting an ideology from those in charge. [The New York Times]

 

 

And nothing but the truth

Many believe a free press creates oversight on the government, including the Founding Fathers.

 

A free press legally protects journalists to find and publish the truth, regardless of how damaging it could be to the government or elected officials. [ACLU]

 

Current libel laws and defamation protections hold journalists and the press accountable. The laws ensure information published has been fact-checked and is truthful. [The Washington Post]

 

 

Diversity

Many believe that freedom of speech and of the press promotes the exchange of ideas and dialogue between people who have different opinions, creating a stronger society of independent thinkers. [Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism]

BE CAREFUL!

On the same page

Supporters of a government-run press might believe that a cohesive message from the press, as dictated by the government, creates a stronger society of orderly citizens.

 

 

Too many ideas

Some believe that too many ideas published by the press can lead to the factionalization of a society. If people stick to those groups, it could lead it to inefficiencies and members constantly stuck in disputes. [Yale]

 

 

Damaging

Some worry that, if the press is given full autonomy, they will publish information that is false and results in libel, defamation, slander, and issues of national security. [Medium]

 

 

What's real?

With the current system of dissemination of information, it can be difficult to sift through all the information to find out what is opinion or fact. [Forbes]

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have been questioned by Congress about their censorship of information and the ability to create echo-chambers. [The Washington Post]

  • Every state in the U.S. has laws protecting journalists from having to disclose sensitive information, like confidential sources or informants, to law enforcement. [ACLU]

  • Georgia lawmakers have introduced the Ethics in Journalism Act. The law would create a board to govern journalists working in the state. Some are calling this bill "absolutely shocking." [Columbia Journalism Review]

  • President Trump consistently attacks the media by calling stories that oppose his beliefs and actions as fake news. [TIME]

  • May 3, 2020: U.N. World Press Freedom Day in the U.S. saw two different responses from Republican and Democratic leaders. Read each response, from Politico

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Is a free press imperative for a government to stay honest with its citizens?

  • Maryland voted to name June 28th "Freedom of the Press Day" in honor of five journalists who died from an attack on the Capital Gazette. [The Capital Gazette] Why is there hostility and violence towards the press in America today?
  • A 2019 poll found 48% of Americans feel their free speech is under attack. Why is the public attacking the press and not doing more to protect its freedom?
  • Check out a list of what is and is not protected under the First Amendment.
  • Here are important Supreme Court cases that have led to the current understanding of freedom of the press in the U.S.

This article is aligned with Purple for Democracy, a movement to support democracy through non-partisan, non-political content. 

 

Learn more about the Purple movement here

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