The Meaning of the First Amendment

Freedom of The Press

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The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is what guarantees the freedom of the press in the United States. Here it is:

"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."

As you can see, the First Amendment is actually three separate clauses that guarantee not only press freedom but freedom of religion as well as the right to assemble and to "petition the government for a redress of grievances."

But as journalists it's the clause about the press that is most important:

"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

Press Freedom in Practice

The Constitution guarantees a free press, which can be extrapolated to include all news media - TV, radio, the web, etc. But what do we mean by a free press? What rights does the First Amendment actually guarantee?

Primarily, press freedom means the news media are not subject to censorship by the government. In other words, the government does not have the right to try to control or block certain things from being published by the press.

Another term often used in this context is prior restraint, which means an attempt by the government to prevent the expression of ideas before they are published. Under the First Amendment, prior restraint is clearly unconstitutional.

Press Freedom Around the World

Here in America, we're privileged to have what is probably the freest press in the world, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But most of the rest of the world isn't so lucky. Indeed, if you close your eyes, spin a globe and plop your finger down onto a random spot, chances are that if you don't land in the ocean, you'll be pointing to a country with press restrictions of some kind. 

China, the world's most populous country, maintains an iron grip on its news media.

Russia, the largest country geographically, does much the same. Around the globe, there are entire regions - the Middle East is but one example – in which press freedom is severely curtailed or virtually non-existent.

In fact, it's easier – and quicker – to compile a list of countries where the press truly is free. Such a list would include the U.S. and Canada, Western Europe and Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan and a handful of countries in South America. In the United States and many industrialized nations, the press enjoys a great deal of freedom to report critically and objectively on the important issues of the day. But in much of the world press freedom is either limited or virtually nonexistent.  Freedom House offers maps and charts to show where the press is free, where it's not, and where press freedoms are limited.

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Rogers, Tony. "The Meaning of the First Amendment." ThoughtCo, Apr. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-first-amendment-2073720. Rogers, Tony. (2017, April 10). The Meaning of the First Amendment. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-first-amendment-2073720 Rogers, Tony. "The Meaning of the First Amendment." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-first-amendment-2073720 (accessed November 22, 2017).