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.
|libel||The 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 Papers||A 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 restraint||Government 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.
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.
What is prior restraint? Why is preventing prior restraint important?
When, if ever, may the government limit the freedom of the press?