“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.”
One of the five rights that the First Amendment protects is freedom of the press. Along with freedom of religion and speech, this right is essential to preserving a free nation. The Founding Fathers enshrined press freedom in the Constitution to avoid the fate of countries with governments that interfere with the work of journalists and news organizations that might criticize the figures who run the nation.
What Is Freedom of the Press?
Freedom of the press is the right of individuals and organizations to report on the news or distribute without interference from the government. This means the state cannot prevent anyone from reporting on the news, or punish them for doing so. This particular right is essential because the role of the press is to ensure that the American public is informed of what is happening in the country and how elected officials are governing the nation.
The Founding Fathers thought it necessary to protect reporters from government interference because shortly before the 13 colonies declared their independence, the British government tried to censor American news outlets and newspapers. The Crown sought to prohibit journalists from publishing opinions that criticized the king or his authorities.
The reason the King wished to stop newspapers from reporting negatively on his government is obvious: Americans living in the colonies were inspired to rebel against the king’s government largely through the work of journalists who exposed British misdeeds. Speaking truth to power is supposed to be one of the primary roles of the press – although it does not always live up to this ideal.
Why Do We Need a Free Press?
In a Republic like the United States, where the people vote for their representatives, the public should know what their governing officials are doing. For that to happen, the country needs a press that can investigate the government and serve as a watchdog that informs the public of any potential wrongdoing. The objective of the press should be to ensure that we know what our politicians are doing and why.
If a particular group of government officials is misbehaving, it is the job of journalists to find out and report it to the people. Various instances of wrongdoing have been uncovered by reporters assigned to investigate these matters. In many cases, journalists’ findings have led to the arrests of corrupt officials.
One example of how the press uncovers corruption in the government was the case of the Pentagon Papers. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, gave copies of classified documents to The New York Times. This material became known as the Pentagon Papers. The documents contained a top-secret study of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967.
These papers revealed the government knew that the eventual Vietnam War would take more lives than it had previously told the American public. Put simply, the documents showed the government was lying about the Vietnam War because it thought if people knew how many people would be killed, the public would be less likely to support the conflict.
The government attempted to obtain a court order preventing The New York Times from publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers. The courts refused to grant the government’s request due to the protections of the First Amendment.
Watching the government isn’t the only role of the press, however. The media also watch what is going on at the local level so that people can be aware of what is happening in their cities. This is the primary means by which we stay informed on current events occurring in our towns, states, country, and the world.
A Free Press Prevents Tyranny
Most, if not all, of the most oppressive governments in the world, do everything they can to stifle the press. In fact, some countries do not even allow real reporters to exist within their borders. Instead, the government controls what information is given to the public. Countries including China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran all have governments that do not allow for a free press.
It can be no surprise, then, that the people living in these nations are subjected to some of the worst forms of tyranny in the world. When a government cannot be held accountable for its actions, it will only grow more oppressive. It is for this reason that all Americans must ensure that we preserve the First Amendment and the rights it protects.