Freedom of the Press
Although a cherished right of the people, freedom of the press is different from other liberties of the people in that it is both individual and institutional. It applies not just to a single person's right to publish ideas, but also to the right of print and broadcast media to express political views and to cover and publish news. A free press is, therefore, one of the foundations of a democratic society, and as Walter Lippmann, the 20th-century American columnist, wrote, "A free press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity in a great society." Indeed, as society has grown increasingly complex, people rely more and more on newspapers, radio, and television to keep abreast with world news, opinion, and political ideas. One sign of the importance of a free press is that when antidemocratic forces take over a country, their first act is often to muzzle the press.
Thomas Jefferson, on the necessity of a free press (1787)
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
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The origins of freedom of speech and press are nearly alike, because critical utterances about the government, either written or spoken, were subject to punishment under English law. It did not matter whether what had been printed was true; government saw the very fact of the criticism as an evil, since it cast doubt on the integrity and reliability of public officers. Progress toward a truly free press, that is, one in which people could publish their views without fear of government reprisal, was halting, and in the mid-18th century the great English legal commentator, Sir William Blackstone, declared that although liberty of the press was essential to the nature of a free state, it could and should be bounded.
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)
Where blasphemous, immoral, treasonable, schismatical, seditious, or scandalous libels are punished by English lawthe liberty of the press, properly understood, is by no means infringed or violated. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publication, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity.
But what constituted "blasphemous, immoral, treasonable, schismatic, seditious or scandalous libels"? They were, in fact, whatever the government defined them to be, and in essence, any publication even mildly critical of government...