How Freedom of the Press Works

History of Freedom of the Press
Benjamin Franklin confers with two colleagues at his printer's shop. Franklin's brother was imprisoned for printing material that offended the British government. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Freedom of speech is anything but a modern concept. For thousands of years, humans have wrestled with the idea of allowing other people to speak their minds as they wish.

In 399 B.C.E., Socrates was put to death for daring to question Roman religious practices. In 1633, Galileo was harassed by the Spanish Inquisition for claiming that the sun did not revolve around the Earth.

Since then freedom of speech has evolved in myriad ways. But it's so vital to modern life that in the ashes of World War II, the United Nations saw fit to enshrine the ideal in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers."

Within this declaration is an implication of a free press. (The UN's resolution 59 takes this even further by saying freedom of information is a fundamental human right.) People ought to be able to express their ideas through any form. However, there's a key difference between freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech means that you can express your opinions without being punished. Freedom of the press is about distribution — you can publish and disseminate news and opinions without fear of intervention and retaliation.

Many countries include press privileges in their governmental framework. Some back it up. Others do not [source: World Democracy Audit]. In the U.S., freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution and reads as follows:

"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" [source: Constitute Project].

"The way this right has been upheld by the Supreme Court has given the United States one of the most robust legal frameworks to protect free speech in the world," says Sarah Repucci, director of global publications at Freedom House, a U.S. organization that advocates and researches political and human rights issues around the world. "Here, the courts regularly strike down any attempts by the government or public figures that challenge the ability of journalists to freely report the news. It is something that Americans should be proud of."