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Freedom of the press: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the First Amendment protections for the press.
Freedom of the press is critical for the functioning of a democracy, as it facilitates the free exchange of ideas.

Key terms

libelThe act of damaging someone’s reputation by printing false statements. Although ordinary citizens can sue for libel based on false statements alone, public persons or officials must also prove that the false statements were made with malicious intent.
Pentagon PapersA top-secret account of US military action in Vietnam, which showed that President Lyndon Johnson had lied to Congress and the public about the extent of the war. Analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1970.
prior restraintGovernment censorship of free expression by preventing publication or speech before it takes place. The Supreme Court has established a “heavy presumption against prior restraint” (in other words, it is likely the Court will declare an act of the government that blocks free expression unconstitutional).

Cases to know

New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) — In 1971, the United States government attempted to restrain the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of US military action in Vietnam, based on national security concerns. In the resulting case, the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s attempt to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers violated the First Amendment right to freedom of the press, and that publishing a history of the war did not pose an immediate national security threat to American military forces.

Key takeaways

Balancing liberty and order — Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has bolstered the freedom of the press by establishing a “heavy presumption against prior restraint.” But freedom of the press is not absolute; citizens can seek redress if false statements printed about them damage their reputation, and leaking government documents that pose an immediate threat to American military forces is a crime.

Review questions

What is prior restraint? Why is preventing prior restraint important?
When, if ever, may the government limit the freedom of the press?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user 200003131
    Would the nation be better if the government limited the freedom of the press?
    (1 vote)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
      Absolutely NOT, IMO! Any limitations should be only if there would be a disclosure of secret agents (our spies) or current troop dispositions or a planned military strike against an enemy. If our government is lying to us or planning anything which is to the detriment of our citizens or our nation, we have a right to know about it.

      Our government has not always done what is in our best interests. If we don't know about it, we have no way of objecting.

      In Vietnam the people of that country wanted only to be reunited and keep larger nations out of their business. They only turned to communism because that was their only way to get support for those aims. They had no interest in having communist-type collectives or overthrowing other countries. They wanted freedom and we initially went there to help the French regain their colony. We had no business in being there.

      I was an adult when that war began and I believed what our government told us and supported that war. If I had known the truth, I would have opposed our being there. There are times we need to fight to protect our freedom, but that was not one of them.
      (19 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Elizabeth Schultz
    Is it lilegel to lie?
    (1 vote)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user AGLUTENFREEFOOD.
      Technically it is totally legal to lie, unless you are involved in a federal investigation, you are under oath, you are being lawfully detained, if you are being asked about a crime you witnessed, if you are filing a police report, on most financial disclosure documents, on your taxes, when you advertise something and if you are committing fraud. Though it is technically legal to lie on a day-to-day basis, it does not mean that it is a good idea. Staying honest and truthful can keep you out of a lot of trouble.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user elijah.h
    What would more take aways be
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