Virtually since the dawn of civilization and the establishment of authority-wielding institutions, what people can say and write has been challenged. There is a universal impulse to control expression, particularly statements or opinions contrary to the views, policies, or dogma of those in power. As is typical within repressive regimes, a justification for the suppression (though not expressed publicly) is the desire to preserve power. This desire to control information continued up to and through the era of the modern press. The phenomenon is not restricted to authoritarian nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even liberal-minded countries, such as the United States, that provide for some kind of speech and/or press freedom have histories of not only struggling with the interpretation and implementation of freedom of expression, but also histories of speech and press suppression.
What Kind of Freedom?
Any analysis of freedom of the press immediately begs several questions, among them: Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? These questions evoke the concepts of negative and positive freedom. Traditionally, freedom of the press is perceived negatively, as freedom from external restraint. But some perspectives, such as that articulated by Theodore Peterson (1956), suggest this negative approach is inadequate. A positive point of view advocates that freedom must also mean the liberty to attain goals. In the case of the press, this is generally summarized as the ability to inform and entertain. This positive perspective, which is more widely accepted in many nations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, moreover, asserts that press freedom is not a passive activity, but must be actively promoted – for example, through regulations that enable the press to attain its goals.
Returning to the question “Freedom from what?” and the notion of negative freedom, the source of external restraint at issue is typically in the form of a government (though throughout history, sometimes religious institutions also have assumed the role of information censors). When the popular press emerged in western Europe, most governments were authoritarian. Thus, these controlling principles became the basis for a system of the press. An authoritarian press system, however, does not necessarily mean a state-owned press. Instead, it means a system in which the state can and does exert control and influence, insuring that the press supports and advances government policies. Censorship often occurs when criticism of government policies or officials is published or is about to be. Licensing of the press is also common within these systems.
The Rise of Libertarianism
Historically, a rebellion against authoritarian control or influence (not merely of the press, but also of society and the citizenry, in general) ultimately led to libertarian press systems coinciding with the establishment of democratic governments. These are in place today in many nations, including throughout western Europe, much of the Americas, and in several Pacific Rim nations.
While censorship’s roots predate recorded history, Europe of the Middle Ages serves as a quintessential model, where both church and state exerted control of individuals. England, for example, was notorious both for its anti-sedition laws prohibiting criticism of the monarchy and laws requiring press licensing. That is, publishing required government approval. Accordingly, those who were granted permission to publish tended to be those predisposed to favor the crown. England’s laws controlling both press and speech illustrate the inextricable link between these areas. Other nations followed similar patterns.
As attempts to suppress expression grew, in many instances becoming commonplace, intellectual voices began challenging that accepted wisdom. The benefits – to both societies and individuals – of writing and speech free of restraints were reasoned, usually in writing. Among the positive outcomes of free press that were articulated was the notion that people cannot fully develop as individuals absent the ability to express themselves. Societal benefits focus on self-governance – that people need to be able to openly discuss issues, including criticism of government and government officials, in order to exercise their votes wisely.
Many sources (e.g., Hatchen & Scotton 2006) agree that serious, intellectual reasoning against repressive institutions and their inclination to proscribe expression began with John Milton’s 1644 work Aereopagitica. Published within the Age of Enlightenment, Aereopagitica not only ridiculed England’s licensing, but also noted that a product of free expression is the discovery of truth. That is, by allowing all ideas and opinions to be expressed and then fully considered, only then can truth – or at least a close approximation – be realized. This notion of an open “marketplace of ideas” in which both spoken and written ideas are free to enter has remained a classic paradigm justifying free expression. John Stuart Mill picked up this torch in the nineteenth century, On Liberty being his exemplary work, and passed it to the US Supreme Court and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes wrote in 1919 in a dissenting vote in Abrams v. The United States, “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
This marketplace of ideas model and the attainment of truth is one of several rationales for free press and speech that have been articulated over time. Other perspectives include individual self-fulfillment, participation in decision-making, the ability to maintain a balance between stability and change, and the checking value that free expression can have in limiting the abuse of official power. Encompassing many of these models is one that recognizes the contribution that a free press makes to a self-governing democracy. This system of government assumes a citizenry that is informed and that considers issues rationally. A press that operates independently of government influence serves as a significant provider of the information required to make reasoned decisions.
Conversely, absent such a press system, citizens are likely to be uninformed because of a lack of information or, perhaps even worse, misinformed by information that is distorted through the lens of the government or other institutions. Without a full range of information supplied by a free press, decision-making is weakened and often unsound. Moreover, when the suppression of ideas is permitted, it is possible that the truth will be among those censored. The importance of a free press to a democratic society is highlighted by the label the “fourth estate,” a term attributed to eighteenth-century British philosopher and politician Edmund Burke. Not unlike the American Founding Fathers who followed him, Burke recognized the significance of the checking power of a free press, consequently bestowing on the press an unofficial status as a branch of government.
In addition to Burke and Milton, other Enlightenment philosophers are credited with developing a progression of thinking that challenged authority and the notion that societies were better off when the opinions of their citizens were silent and unprinted. John Locke suggested that rather than belonging to the state, individuals possessed natural rights. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that citizens enter into a sort of social contract with their government that requires sacrificing some liberties in exchange for the security government can provide. In turn, however, this contract places limits on the state, requiring it to provide not only protection, but also freedom. Voltaire also advocated individual freedom, but added that it was freedom of expression that enables citizens to participate in their government. Another prominent influence was a group of essays published in the 1720s under the pseudonym Cato. Written by two Englishmen, Cato’s Letters denounced tyranny and specifically advanced free expression as a means of criticizing government to make it more responsive to the will of the people. “Cato” asserted that freedom of speech was “the great bulwark of liberty,” protecting the people against tyranny by preventing and exposing abuses of power.
The expression and circulation of these ideas were influential in governments’ granting of various forms of rights protection, including England’s Bill of Rights in 1689. Though different in substance and scope, the document was a predecessor to the Bill of Rights, passed a century later, which amends the United States Constitution. In turn, the French government passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Like the US rights, the French Declaration specifically included freedom of speech and of the press.
In establishing protection for the press, the architects of the US Constitution and its First Amendment were influenced by precedent, the writings of philosophers and statesmen (some described above), as well as how other governments considered handling the various issues. Thomas Jefferson, for example, voiced concern that a Constitution absent rights that protected individual liberties such as speech and press freedom was incomplete and improperly weighted. That is, merely outlining the structure of the federal government, as the body of the Constitution did, was inadequate; the anti-federalists also wanted protection for individuals from the power of that government. Specifically, Jefferson was a passionate advocate of a press free from government control or influence. Only when the press is free, he believed, can the people be well informed, and “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government” (Koch & Peden 1972, 418).
Freedom of the Press Not Absolute
Even a libertarian perspective, however, can be illusory. First, professed freedom guarantees can mask authoritarian practices, both covert and overt. For example, in the US, questions were raised regarding whether its news media were free in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Were they pressured to refrain from any questioning of government policy rather than voicing a healthy skepticism? The potential for repressive government influence was evident when, two weeks after the attacks, the White House press secretary responded to the words of a television commentator by saying that all Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is” (Fleischer 2001).
Second, and less subtly, governments may place limitations on press freedom through laws and regulations enacted by assemblies or agencies, approved by an executive, and upheld by courts when challenged. These laws are meant to balance press freedom against other interests, many of which revolve around protection of individuals, other institutions, or society. For example, nearly every society makes the press liable, whether civilly or criminally, for libel and slander, privacy, and other personal harms. More often than not, the balancing process reflects the socio-political and cultural traditions of a country. In the US, libel law is exceedingly media friendly, whereas in the UK, it is far less so.
From an international and comparative law perspective, press freedom is still evolving (Fiss 1996). The journalist’s privilege to protect confidential sources as a right to free press is a case in point. While a growing number of democratic countries recognize the journalist’s privilege, the US backtracks on its actual or perceived protection of journalistic sources. As communication technology evolved beyond the publication and distribution of the printed word, freedoms and privileges granted to the press have often been extended to these newer mass media. However, it is not uncommon that those freedoms are established at a lower level than those granted to printed publications. For example, in the US, the UK, and many other countries, the owners of broadcast stations must obtain a license from the government in order to operate in the public interest.
Pressure on the press can originate with nongovernment sources, as well. In some environments, the economic marketplace may serve to constrain press freedom as much as anything. Within press systems that are advertiser supported, the power to withhold or withdraw monetary sustenance can be significant. Similarly, the press may be inclined to self-censor for fear of alienating advertisers or audiences. In addition, another freedom limiting dynamic may surface simply through the practice of another press perspective: social responsibility. It may be suggested that if freedom carries with it an obligation to be responsible, by definition, the acknowledgment and implementation of that obligation (for example, codes of ethics) obstruct freedom.
The concept of freedom of the press is just that – a concept. Nowhere is the freedom absolute. It is a concept that many have suggested is worth striving for, but it remains elusive. Moreover, a press system that is absolutely free – that is, unchecked either by government, marketplace forces, or a sense of social responsibility – is undesirable, largely because of the absence of accountability. Even governments that choose to grant freedom to the press struggle with defining that liberty. The debate over how and where to place the boundaries that divide acceptable and unacceptable uses of the press is ongoing.
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