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Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the United States Constitution.

John Hancock was the first person to write newspapers in the British colonies in North America published "by authority," that is, under license from and as the mouthpiece of the colonial governors. The first regularly published newspaper was the Boston News-Letter of John Campbell, published weekly beginning in 1704. The early colonial publishers were either postmasters or government printers, and therefore unlikely to challenge government policies.

The first independent newspaper in the colonies was the New-England Courant, published in Boston by James Franklin beginning in 1721. A few years later, Franklin's younger brother, Benjamin, purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette of Philadelphia, which became the leading newspaper of the colonial era.

During this period, newspapers were unlicensed and could freely publish dissenting views, but were subject to prosecution for libel or even sedition if their opinions threatened the government. The notion of "freedom of the press" later enshrined in the United States Constitution is generally traced to the seditious libel prosecution of John Peter Zenger by the colonial governor of New York in 1735. In this instance of jury nullification, Zenger was acquitted after his lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, argued to the jury (contrary to established English law) that there was no libel in publishing the truth. Yet even after this celebrated case, colonial governors and assemblies asserted the power to prosecute and even imprison printers for publishing unapproved views.

A U.S. Postage Stamp commemorating freedom of the press.

During the American Revolution, a free press was identified by Revolutionary leaders as one of the elements of liberty that they sought to preserve. The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) proclaimed that "the freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments." Similarly, the Constitution of Massachusetts (1780) declared, "The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this commonwealth." Following these examples, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution restricted Congress from abridging the freedom of the press and the closely associated freedom of speech.

John Locke’s ideas had inspired both the French and American revolutions. Thomas Jefferson wanted to unite the two streams of liberalism, the English and the French schools of thought. His goal was to create a government that would provide both security and opportunity for the individual. An active press was essential as a way of educating the population. To work freely, the press must be free from control by the state. Jefferson was a person who himself suffered great calumnies of the press. Despite this, in his second inaugural address, he proclaimed that a government that could not stand up under criticism deserved to fall.

Jefferson said: "No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all avenues of the truth".

In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Near v. Minnesota used the 14th Amendment to apply the freedom of the press to the States. Other notable cases regarding free press are:

Ranking of United States press freedom

The United States are, as of 2009, joint 20th in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index[1] . This is a measure of freedom available to the press, encompassing areas such as government censorship, and not indicative of the quality of journalism. In 2009 the United States climbed 16 places from 36th in 2008 with a score of 4.00, with Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden tied for first place with 0.00 and Eritrea bottom of the list with 115.50.

In the Freedom of the Press 2009 report, published by Freedom House the United States is ranked fourth in the Americas [2] , and joint 24th globally. This reports from 0 (free) to 100 (not free), with the United States scoring 18 compared to Iceland (top of the list) on 9 and North Korea (bottom of the list) on 98.

Notable exceptions

  • In 1798, not long after the adoption of the Constitution, the governing Federalist Party attempted to stifle criticism by means of the Alien and Sedition Acts. (It was notable that the Sedition Act made criticism of Congress, and of the President, a crime, but not criticism of the Vice-President. Jefferson, a non-Federalist, was Vice-President at the time the Act was passed.) These restrictions on freedom of the press proved very unpopular in the end and worked against the Federalists, leading to the party's eventual demise. Thomas Jefferson was among those who opposed the Acts, and did so vehemently, and he was elected President in the election of 1800. Jefferson then pardoned most of those convicted under the Acts. He made it a principle not to ask what they had done, but only whether they had been charged under the Acts. In his first Inaugural Address in 1801 he reiterated his longstanding commitment to freedom of speech and of the press: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
  • The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which amended it, imposed restrictions on the free press during wartime. It carried fines of $10,000 and up to 20 years imprisonment for people publishing "... disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States ..." In Schenck v. United States (1919), the Supreme Court upheld the laws, setting the "Clear and present danger" standard. Congress repealed both laws in 1921, and Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) revised the "Clear and present danger" test to the "Imminent lawless action" test, which is less restrictive.
  • 1988: Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier: The Supreme Court upheld that the principal of a school has the right to review and block controversial articles of a school paper funded by the school and published in the school's name.
  • In the United States in 2005, interpretation of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act may consider political statements as being the equivalent of campaign donations. Because access to Internet statements are weakly controlled, the campaign value of statements is not known in advance and a high ultimate value may trigger large fines for violations. This particularly threatens Internet statements by individuals, and ambiguous definitions of membership in the press make the possible effects ambiguous.
  • 2008: Wikileaks was forcefully censored by the United States.[3][4] Wikileaks was given only hours notice "by email" prior to the hearing. Wikileaks pre-litigation California council Julie Turner attended the start of hearing in a personal capacity but was then asked to leave the court room. After appeal, however, all the court of appeals threw out the case, restoring access to Wikileaks.[5]

References

  1. ^ http://www.rsf.org/en-classement1003-2009.html
  2. ^ http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/fop/2009/FreedomofthePress2009_tables.pdf
  3. ^ BBC NEWS | Technology | Whistle-blower site taken offline
  4. ^ Judge Shuts Down Web Site Specializing in Leaks - New York Times
  5. ^ Wikileaks.org under injunction - Wikileaks
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