Freedom of the Press Clause

The Freedom of the Press Clause guarantees that people can publish any lawful material without fear of punishment by the government, even if that material is critical of the government. The Freedom of the Press Clause of the 1st Amendment reads like this:

"Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom... of the press."

History of the Freedom of the Press Clause

Freedom of the Press has existed in the United States since roughly 1725. Before that time, publications in England and in the American colonies were subject to strict licensing by the government, meaning the government had to give one license to print anything. In particular, it was against the law to print anything that was considered by the government to be seditious libel. This meant anything that criticized the government or its officials. This speech was deemed to have the potential to create public rebellions. It didn't matter whether or not the information was true.

In 1735, a case involving John Peter Zenger erupted. Zenger was the publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger's publication distributed the views of several local people who were critical of the royal governor. The Royal Governor had Zenger arrested and tried for seditious libel.

The Trial of John Peter Zenger

Zenger's attorney argued that he was telling the truth and because he was telling the truth he should not be convicted. Whether or not it was the truth had never mattered before in seditious libel cases. The law simply stated that critical comments of the government could not be made period, true or not.

Nonetheless, Zenger's attorney did convince the jury and he was acquitted. Ever since that time, those who criticize the government have generally been allowed to do so with no fear of prosecution. Royal governments after this still retained the right to prosecute seditious libel cases and occasionally did so, but it became more and more rare.

During the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers identified the free press as a major source of protecting their liberties. The press could quickly and cheaply distribute viewpoints over wide areas of the country. George Mason called for a right to Freedom of the Press in his Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. More states called for Freedom of the Press in the Bill of Rights than called for freedom of speech, and many states wrote guarantees of Freedom of the Press into their state constitutions.

Applying the Freedom of the Press Clause

There are generally a few limitations on the freedom of the press. The press is usually prevented from publishing anything regarded as a state secret or anything that would endanger national security. The press is also prevented from libeling people, meaning promoting intentionally false information about someone that would damage his reputation. The Supreme Court has also ruled that there must be intentional malice to justify a libel charge. The Court has also said that public figures and public officials cannot charge with libel someone who criticizes them or publishes something derogatory about them (without malice).

In the past, the Freedom of the Press Clause was only applied to printed materials, but with the proliferation of electronic media in the modern age, these freedoms are also extended to electronic media formats such as television, radio and internet. Generally television is not allowed quite as much freedom as print or internet because there are only a limited number of frequencies available that must be regulated by the government. Freedom of the printed word is still limited in many places in the world today, such as in countries dominated by Sharia Law, but it has been, historically, difficult for governments to regulate electronic communications that can be sent through the airwaves into their jurisdictions from outside.

You can find a complete list of Supreme Court cases having to do with the Freedom of the Press Clause here. Simply choose from the list of Freedom of Expression topics, all having to do with Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Assembly and Freedom to Petition the Government.

On a related topic, to access a history of Post 9/11 Freedom of Information Rulings and Acts of Congress go here 

Red stars

If you would like to read about the meanings of each amendment, go to the First Ten Amendments page here.

Read about other clauses of the First Amendment:

Opening Phrase
Establishment Clause
Free Exercise Clause
Freedom of Speech Clause
Freedom of Assembly Clause
Freedom of Petition Clause


Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.

Read the Bill of Rights here.

Learn more about the Bill of Rights with the following articles:

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