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freedom of the press

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noun
the right to publish newspapers, magazines, and other printed matter without governmental restriction and subject only to the laws of libel, obscenity, sedition, etc.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022

MORE ABOUT FREEDOM OF THE PRESS

What does freedom of the press mean?

Freedom of the press is the right to publish content that is deemed legal without interference from the government.

In the United States, freedom of the press is established by the Constitution, the fundamental law of the country. Other countries have their own laws regarding freedom of the press. Let’s look at the freedom of the press as it applies to the United States.

While the press is almost always used to refer to printed publications such as newspapers and magazines, American courts have ruled that freedom of the press applies to other forms of media, such as broadcast news programs and online news outlets.

In general, freedom of the press means that news outlets can print or broadcast almost anything they want as long as they do not break any laws. The simplest case is illegal content, such as treasonous content and child pornography, which is not protected by the Constitution.

Freedom of the press allows, for example, newspapers to check facts shared by politicians, magazines to review products, and online sports websites to analyze player contracts and salaries. Freedom of the press protects these publications from retaliation from the government (and often individuals and businesses) for content it doesn’t like.

Without freedom of the press, the freedom and liberty of American citizens could be severely weakened by government propaganda, dishonest business practices, and widespread misinformation and disinformation.

Why is freedom of the press important?

In the United States, the freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which was ratified in 1791. The First Amendment states in part that “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.”

The Founding Fathers valued a free press as a way to protect American liberty from British tyranny. Before the American colonies broke away from Britain, the British government would try to prohibit American newspapers from printing information and opinions the government didn’t like. During the American Revolution, stories of battles with the British army were printed in local newspapers, which made their way around the colonies. In this way, a free press played a large role in rallying support.

Freedom of the press doesn’t allow the media to print absolutely anything, though. Besides illegal content, there are several other types of content that are not protected by freedom of the press:

  • Defamation, slander, and libel: Lies and untrue statements that damage a person’s or business’s reputation are not protected content, and someone who publishes such statements can be sued.
  • Obscenity: Extremely explicit pornographic material is not protected content. Additionally, most broadcast media is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC has the ability to punish media outlets that broadcast content that would be inappropriate for children. However, news outlets often have more freedom to broadcast especially violent or disturbing content when the public needs to be informed of it.
  • False advertising: The government punishes companies or news outlets that make dangerously untrue or fraudulent claims about products.

Did you know … ?

While defamation and libel are not protected by freedom of the press, some media publish obviously false stories about celebrities and public figures. They can do so because celebrities and public figures must prove malice by the media outlet, which can be difficult. Most lawsuits against these publications are dismissed or fail in court.

What are real-life examples of freedom of the press?

The Gazette 

Pictured above is a newspaper article covering the Watergate scandal. Thanks to the freedom of the press, the media was able to cover this scandal without fearing retaliation from President Richard Nixon.

In recent times, the right of the freedom of the press has become more controversial among Americans due to malicious online outlets claiming to be news organizations and attacks on the media by former president Donald Trump.

What other words are related to freedom of the press?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Freedom of the press allows the media to publish fake news and lies.

How to use freedom of the press in a sentence

Cultural definitions for freedom of the press

freedom of the press

The right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government. Americans enjoy freedom of the press under the First Amendment (see also First Amendment) to the Constitution.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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