Press Freedom under Attack: When the Public Turns against Free Speech

By McMasters, Paul K. | The Quill, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Press Freedom under Attack: When the Public Turns against Free Speech


McMasters, Paul K., The Quill


Significant numbers of Americans believe that freedom of the press is a problem for our society rather than a solution. In fact, nearly half of the respondents in the most recent State of the First Amendment survey believe the press has too much freedom.

To add insult to injury, more Americans believe that the freedom of the press to publish whatever it wants is a greater problem than government censorship by a margin of 41 percent to 36 percent.

Other headlines regarding American attitudes toward the press in the annual survey conducted by The Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center:

* Seven in 10 Americans believe it is very or somewhat important for the government to hold the media in check.

* Four in 10 think that newspapers should not be allowed to endorse political candidates.

* Three in 10 don't believe newspapers should be allowed to criticize public officials.

* And two in 10 don't believe newspapers should be allowed to publish stories without government approval.

The public does seem to understand the watchdog role of the press - 81 percent in the survey said that it is very important or somewhat important for the media to hold the government in check. On the other hand, 71 percent of the respondents also thought it was very or somewhat important for the government to hold the media in check.

The 2001 survey was conducted during the spring, when the networks' bungled coverage on election night last fall was still on the minds of many. Asked whether television networks should be allowed to project winners in national races, 80 percent said no.

More ominously, 53 percent said they would favor a law restricting news organizations from projecting winners in a presidential election.

What are journalists to make of these findings? Criticism of the American press is nothing new. In fact, some of the complaints Americans direct at the press today were staples of the Hutchins Commission report in 1947. Other surveys have hinted at similarly disquieting notions about the press.

Nevertheless, the brute reality of public attitudes revealed in this survey generates real unease among those working to protect press freedom. Of particular concern is how public hostility toward the press translates into public policy that further restricts the ability of the press to perform its constitutional role.

Private citizens are not the only ones who consider the press a problem. Policymakers challenge and seek to redefine the press's role in our society. Scholars write insistently of the need for media reform that would unhinge the press from its traditional First Amendment moorings. State and federal legislators propose laws and regulations to rein in what they view as journalistic excess. In courts of law, the First Amendment claims of the press now must compete with other values ascendant in the public mind.

Early this summer, the Supreme Court, in its first true press case in more than a decade, handed down a narrow victory for the press that was not all that comforting. In Bartnicki vs. Vopper, the justices sent a not-too-subtle warning that personal privacy concerns could trump press rights under slightly different circumstances.

Press freedom, in fact, faces any number of innovative legal challenges. The Tennessee Supreme Court this year declined to review a lower court decision that shifted the burden of proof in a libel case to the newspaper defendant, rather than the state legislator who brought the suit. …

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