Journalists and government officials are fighting new battles over this Constitutional right
Every year, students in the U.S. study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on September 17—Constitution Day. TFK Kid Reporter Bridget Bernardo spoke to experts about one of the freedoms granted in the Bill of Rights: freedom of the press. Read her report below.
Founding father Thomas Jefferson once said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.” In the U.S., freedom of the press is provided by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, a part of the Constitution. It states, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."
Freedom of the press was included in the Bill of Rights because the founding fathers understood that if governments could block opinions or stories they disliked, then the public would be less informed. The press serves as a government watchdog and has used its First Amendment rights to hold public officials accountable. This has caused many to call the media the “Fourth Estate” or “fourth branch of government,” fitting into the system of checks and balances among our Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches.
Yet since the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, the question of what falls under freedom of the press has been ongoing. Today, journalists, government officials and courts continue to struggle to apply the First Amendment and argue about its limits. Lawyer James Goodale is a leading expert on the First Amendment and media law. He says it’s important that kids pay attention to these issues. “Kids, like everyone else, need to know and understand what’s going on in the world,” Goodale told TFK. “Without freedom of the press, there is no way we can understand what our politicians are doing.”
Fighting for the Press
Who is covered by the free press? What rights does the First Amendment actually guarantee? Mostly, freedom of the press means that television, newspapers, magazines and other media sources can publish truthful reports—even if they are controversial—without interference from the government.
The protection offered by the First Amendment wasn’t always clear. James Goodale’s new book, Fighting for the Press, details his role as lawyer to the New York Times in the 1970s during the “Pentagon Papers Case.” The Pentagon Papers were top-secret government documents that were given to the paper without the government’s permission. The paper started publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers, and the government went to court to stop them. The government argued that it was illegal to publish the stories because the information was “classified” and that the stories would harm national security. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times, stating that “the press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”
Goodale says that the case’s key lesson is that governments can become “bewitched by secrecy.” This continues today, affecting the way reporters do their work, according to Goodale. “The government is clamping down on reporters, and they don’t feel as free as they used to feel,” he said.
Free Press in Schools?
While the Pentagon Papers case made it clear that the government couldn’t block the publication of stories, student publications are held to a different standard. In another case, the Supreme Court ruled that educators can “exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech” if it conflicts with the school’s educational mission.
“There’s definitely a reduced level of First Amendment freedom when you get inside the school walls during the school day, but it’s not crystal clear where the line exists,” Frank LoMonte, the Executive Director at the Student Press Law Center, told TFK. Regardless, he says, students “ought to have the freedom to critique school policies and programs and to address matters of social concern.”
A New Press
The First Amendment is not just about censorship and control. New issues constantly emerge around freedom of the press. Earlier this year, the Justice Department made headlines when it revealed that it had secretly obtained two months of telephone records for reporters and editors for The Associated Press news service. The head of the AP called the seizure a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its reporting. The issue raised many questions. Can the government search that reporter’s e-mails or listen to her phone calls to find out who is leaking the classified information? Is the reporter an accomplice to a crime?
Other questions have come up in the digital age, such as who is entitled to First Amendment protection. Well-known publications like TIME FOR KIDS and The New York Times are covered, but what about less established media such as bloggers and independent journalists? Do they get the same protections? The Constitution never explicitly answers these questions, so Americans get to debate and decide.
Goodale says these issues are “where the action is,” and advises kids to get involved because “the fight for the press must always go on” in order for our society to remain well informed. “Freedom of the press is necessary for kids to build their foundation of an understanding of our political life,” he says. Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers would agree.
In the video below, TFK explains the U.S. Constitution.