Freedom of the Press

press, freedom of the

freedom of the press, liberty to print or to otherwise disseminate information, as in print, by broadcasting, or through electronic media, without prior restraints such as licensing requirements or content review and without subsequent punishment for what is said. Freedom of the press, which has been limited not only by governments but at times by churches, is absolute in no country. In modern democracies it is rarely attacked by overt forms of censorship but is often compromised by governments' ability to withhold information, by self-censorship in reaction to various pressures, by selective government "leaking" of information or disinformation, and by other factors.

In the United States, freedom of the press and the broader freedom of speech (see speech, freedom of) are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and are considered fundamental rights of the people. In practice, though, some kinds of speech and publication (e.g., obscenity or violations of copyright) are considered outside the amendment's purview, and others, like commercial speech (advertising or product claims), receive a reduced level of protection. In addition, broadcasters are subject to government licensing requirements. The protections to be afforded users of on-line computer services, the Internet, and other new means of publication are the focus of a developing debate; in 1996 a federal district court panel struck down the new Communications Decency Act, holding that Internet communications were entitled to the same degree of protection as printed communications.


Historically, restriction of the press has occurred in two ways. The first may be either censorship or mandatory licensing by the government in advance of publication; the second is punishment for printed material, especially that considered by the government to be seditious libel, i.e., material that may "excite disaffection" against constituted authority (see lese majesty). Censorship of the press began not long after the invention of the printing press. Pope Alexander VI issued (1501) a notice requiring printers to submit copy to church authorities before publication, in order to prevent heresy. Penalties for bypassing the censors included fines and excommunication.

Early English Restrictions and Developments

In England, where the struggle for press freedom first began, the appearance of unauthorized publications resulted in a royal proclamation (1534) requiring prepublication licensing. Stronger restrictive measures were taken by the later Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and censorship came to be applied more to political criticism than religious heresy. John Milton, in his Areopagitica (1644), attacked the licensing law and called on Parliament to suppress offensive publications after their appearance if necessary. Milton's objections to prior restraint eventually became a cornerstone of press freedom, but it was not until 1695 that the licensing and censorship laws were abolished.

Severe restrictions on the press continued, however, in the form of seditious libel laws under which the government was able to arrest and punish any printer who published material in any way critical of the government. There was no clear definition of what constituted seditious libel, and in the 18th cent. the printing of parliamentary debates had to be disguised as debates between classical figures. At this time, both true and false criticism of the government was considered libel. In fact, legal doctrine proclaimed that "the greater the truth the greater the libel." Only in the mid-19th cent. did truth become admissible as a defense in English libel cases.

In the United States

The defense of John Peter Zenger against libel charges in 1735 is often seen as the cornerstone of American press freedom. After the American Revolution, several states provided for freedom of the press, and the First Amendment (1791) to the U.S. Constitution declared that "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." Whether these acts were intended to prohibit prosecution for seditious libel or merely to prohibit prior restraint has been a matter of controversy. In reaction to the Sedition Act (1798), a more libertarian interpretation of the First Amendment became dominant, which saw it as rejecting seditious libel as a crime. The First Amendment was later (beginning in the 1920s) applied to all the states by judicial interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868).

Wartime situations often present challenges to the legal limits of press freedom. What was looked upon as irresponsible reporting during the Civil War led to attempts by civil and military authorities to impose restrictions upon the press. Appeals by the War Department for publishers to voluntarily suppress news that was strategic to the war were, however, largely ineffective. During World War I, near hysteria over the possibility of sabotage led Congress to pass the Espionage Acts (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918). These acts limited freedom of the press to such an extent that not only was censorship exercised against pro-German publications but also against German-language publications and those advocating socialism or pacifism.

In 1931, the Supreme Court, in Near v. Minnesota, for the first time declared almost all forms of prior restraint to be unconstitutional. In World War II the Office of Censorship, under the direction of Byron Price, expanded upon techniques developed by George Creel's Censorship Board of World War I. The new office supervised (1941–45) the most comprehensive censorship in U.S. history. Compliance was voluntary, however, and was based on the office's suggestion to editors on topics to avoid. Because Price and his assistants were respected journalists themselves, newspapers and journals cooperated. Similar cooperation was accorded to the Office of War Information, which controlled the flow of news from government agencies. As a result, the government rarely took punitive action.

After the war, many news organizations undertook campaigns against secrecy in government, maintaining that the withholding of public records threatens freedom of the press. As world tensions heightened during the cold war in the 1950s and 60s, defense officials often protested that the mere absence of war did not justify peacetime openness in the press.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, there were frequent charges and countercharges between journalists and government officials concerning the withholding of information on the Vietnam War by the government. The only recognized grounds for prior restraint, national security, was tested in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg, a former government employee who believed that information that should be made public was being withheld by the government, released the Pentagon Papers, a collection of classified government documents concerning the Vietnam War. The government tried to block their publication, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), permitted their release.

The First Amendment has not been extended to the gathering as well as the publication of news. The experience of the Vietnam War led the U.S. government to restrict the access of reporters in combat areas in subsequent military encounters. This practice, used during the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was bitterly resented by many reporters. In domestic affairs, although a number of states have passed shield laws, which permit journalists to refuse to disclose confidential information and sources to law-enforcement bodies, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized no unrestricted right of press confidentiality.


See P. Lahav, Press Law in Modern Democracies (1984); W. W. Van Alsytne, Interpretations of the First Amendment (1984); L. Levy, The Emergence of a Free Press (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Freedom of the Press: Selected full-text books and articles

The Constitution, the Law, and Freedom of Expression, 1787-1987 By James Brewer Stewart Southern Illinois University Press, 1987
Property, Power and Press Freedom: Emergence of the Fourth Estate, 1640-1789 By Burrowes, Carl Patrick Journalism and Communication Monographs, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring 2011
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Free Press vs. Fair Trials: Examining Publicity's Role in Trial Outcomes By Jon Bruschke; William E. Loges Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Journalistic Freedom and Privacy: A Case of Relative Compatibility By Lewis, Anthony; Masterman, Edward I Suffolk University Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter 2010
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan: Freedom of the Press or Libel? By Susan Dudley Gold Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2007
War & Press Freedom: The Problem of Prerogative Power By Jeffery A. Smith Oxford University Press, 1999
Free Expression in America: A Documentary History By Sheila Suess Kennedy Greenwood Press, 1999
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.