How Freedom of the Press Works

Let Freedom (of the Press) Ring
The trial of John Peter Zenger in New York, 1734. The printer of the New York Weekly Journal was accused of libel, though he was acquitted. The case paved the way for freedom of the press in the United States. Bettman/Getty Images

But the U.S. press wasn't always like that. In Colonial America, the first newspapers were printed under license from British authorities. That is, they were only allowed to print ideas that passed muster from the Crown. Crossing the government could result in imprisonment, as happened to Benjamin Franklin's older brother James when he published material that offended the powers that be [source: Breig].

But around 1720, newspaper publishers realized that colonists in the New World loved it when their editorials skewered their local governors. So, they published ever-more biting commentary. The truth was good for circulation but not so good for aspiring politicians.

Politicians, as they are wont, fought back. In 1735, New York Governor William Crosby had journalist John Peter Zenger arrested for his inflammatory comments (which were, of course, about Crosby). A grand jury declined to charge Zenger, so Crosby later doubled down by accusing Zenger of libel — a written false statement meant to damage a person's reputation. Zenger's lawyers argued that the statement couldn't be considered libel if it was the truth [source: National Park Service].

Zenger languished in jail for a year awaiting trial, and during that time, public interest in the case escalated. In court, the jury found him not guilty, and the incident became a watershed moment for freedom of the press in America. Still, in the years following the case it was common for those in power to prosecute or jail publishers who crossed them in print [sources: U.S. History, New World Encyclopediaj]

Around the same time, English intellectuals coined the term fourth estate for the role of journalism in society. It was perceived as a counterbalance to the other three estates —the wealthy class, religious class and common citizens. It's a means of keeping the other estates honest, or at least accountable for their actions [source: Gill].

Flash forward a few decades to the U.S. Constitution (1787), and you'll notice that the idea of a free press really isn't addressed in this document. It was included the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, which explicitly prohibited government interference in the free speech of its citizens and journalists. The Zenger case helped to pave the way for including freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights.

But why, exactly, is freedom of the press such a contentious issue? Because everyone is (usually) in favor of it until the press prints something they find objectionable, either about themselves or some event. The real test of support for this idea is how someone reacts to information they do not like.

"[Nazi propaganda leader Joseph] Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you're in favor of free speech, then you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise" wrote Noam Chomsky in "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media" [source: Robinson].