What is Freedom of the Press? - Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:42 History
  • 2:43 Examples
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

This lesson will teach you about freedom of the press. Specifically, you will review the definition of freedom of the press and learn about its history. Finally, you will examine some examples to gain a heightened understanding of how freedom of the press still works today.


Imagine that you are a journalist writing a news story about a political figure who is suspected of corruption. You speak to many of his aides, former colleagues, and business associates, all who wish to remain anonymous. The government finds out about your investigation, and since it is a sensitive topic with serious ramifications for top officials at the White House, they attempt to legally block you from publishing it. But you refuse to comply, invoking the freedom of the press.

Freedom of the press is the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government. Americans enjoy freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the Constitution, which states: 'Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.'


Back in 1735, there was a case involving John Peter Zenger, a journalist and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger was sued for libel after publishing critical stories about public officials, but this famous case was overturned. This case established the right of the press to criticize public officials, and it also indicated that true statements are a valid defense when sued for libel. Thereafter, in 1791, the First Amendment was established. This Amendment is the basis of the freedom of the press.

During the early 1900s and World War I, two legislative acts were passed to regulate free speech. These acts, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, were enacted in order to censor pro-German, socialist, or pacifist publications. However, in 1931, the Supreme Court held that virtually all forms of restraint on free speech were unconstitutional.

In the advent of the Cold War in the mid-1900s, news organizations worked to disclose information such as public records relating to wars. These efforts were designed to promote the policy that failing to release information to the public constitutes a threat to the freedom of the press.

Thereafter, in the early 1970s, during Vietnam and the Nixon administration, frequent discussions occurred between news agencies and the government. In 1971, a Supreme Court case entitled New York Times v. United States established the significant rights of the press. In this case, the government sought to suppress classified documents known as the Pentagon Papers. These papers included classified information about the Vietnam War. The New York Times fought against the government's effort to prevent publication, and the Supreme Court upheld the freedom of the press and its First Amendment rights to speech. Thus, the Pentagon Papers were released.

Over time, the freedom of the press has been tested repeatedly in the legal system.


Examples of freedom of the press abound. One example revolves around the shock jocks who host radio programs. Shock jocks are radio disc jockeys with strong opinions and critiques; typically, they discuss hot or taboo topics. These individuals sometimes provide harsh criticisms of the government or other public figures. However, this speech is protected as freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

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