Freedom of the Press Supreme Court Cases

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

Freedom of the press is a vital part of our democracy. In this lesson, we will discuss how the First Amendment protections for freedom of the press have developed over time.

Free Press

In the United States, we highly value the ability of the press to report on the news without bias or interference. We expect that the government will not try to influence the news or try to restrict information from the public. We also expect that the press will be fair and unbiased in reporting, so that we can trust the information we are given.

There are many Supreme Court cases that identify aspects of the First Amendment protection of free press. Cases of free press are concerned with many different issues including prior restraint, whether the government can stop publication of material by a news outlet; obscenity, material that can be deemed too offensive to publish; and libel and slander (written and spoken defamation of character).

Stop the Presses

Prior restraint is the concept that the government can force a newspaper, TV station, or other news outlet not to publish a story. In the United States, the Court has repeatedly upheld that private publications have the right to share a truthful story with the public, free from government interference, even if that story is damaging to the government. For example, the New York Times wanted to publish an expose on the Vietnam War, which the government did not want published; the Court held that the Times can publish as they see fit, even if it may endanger the possible war efforts (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971).

However, students who are in high school or younger are not free to publish everything they desire in school newspapers--the material can be censored by their teachers and administration (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988). Some freedom of expression and press rights are not universally protected for adolescents. The school administrators, as representatives of the city government, can change the content of a school paper if it is inappropriate. They have the right to restrict the students' free press because the students are not adults and because the school is using public tax dollars to operate. It has a responsibility to use that money for projects at school that are appropriate for the age and experiences of the student body who will read that paper.

Obscenity

Obscene material, such as pornography or depictions of graphic violence, may be content that a person would not choose to be exposed to or would want to shield their children from seeing. It has been notoriously difficult to categorize when some material is obscene or simply provocative art, however, the Court upheld a three-part test for reviewing whether censorship infringes on freedom of the press and expression in Miller v. California (1973). First, using 'contemporary community standards,' would a normal person consider it to be excessively or grossly sexual in nature? Second, does the material break some existing state law defining what is offensive sexual content? And finally, could it be considered 'literary, artistic, political, or scientific' as a whole? These three questions help define the difference between a television show or movie that has one or more sexual situations depicted and pornography that crosses a boundary into potential obscenity, as defined by law.

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