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Limits to the freedom of the press

Posted by: | October 7, 2010 | No Comment |

Journalists today have the freedom to report the truth, without fear of reprimand from the government, or other people.  It is common to see newspapers questioning a senate vote, or a blog offering dissent for the president.  Although the First Amendment technically declared the freedom of the press, it was not always as free as it is today.

“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.” – The First Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The Patriotic Vanguard says that the press could theoretically be limited by access to information, prior restraint on publishing information, liability for publishing, and the requirement of reporters to disclose sources, or other information under oath in a court.

The first setback for freedom in the press after the First Amendment was written was in the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The Constitutional Rights Foundation says that the Sedition Act made it illegal for anyone to express “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president.

The first person to be charged under the act was Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon, of Virginia.  Lyon criticized President Adams in a Republican newspaper, and he was sentenced to four months in jail, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

President Thomas Jefferson abolished this portion of the act and made it legal for the press to criticize the government soon after he took office.

There have been other court cases that have imposed limits on, or gave more rights to, the freedom of the press, including:

  • New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) prevented the U.S. government from censoring classified information about the Vietnam War (the Pentagon Papers) in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
  • Branzburg v. Hayes (1972): In this case, the court ruled that a reporter could not refuse to testify by saying their speech is protected by the First Amendment.
  • Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988): This case concluded that a high school principal, and ultimately a school board, can exercise censorship over a school-funded student newspaper.
  • Patriot Act (2001): Homefront Confidential says that the government could search newsrooms–an act that would otherwise be illegal–under the Patriot Act.

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