Freedom of the press was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. The core of free press in the United States has been independence from government control. Although government and government officials have at times attempted to directly censor news content or to indirectly stifle the news media through civil lawsuits, the Supreme Court has declared these efforts in violation of the First Amendment.
For example, in New York Times Co. v. United States, the Court in 1971 turned back a U.S. government attempt to prevent newspapers from publishing the Pentagon Papers, which disclosed details about the government machinations behind the Vietnam War. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court concluded that a government official suing a newspaper defamation could not prevail without showing the newspaper published false information knowingly or acted with reckless disregard. In practice, these and other court precedents largely have insulated print, broadcast and digital news in the United States from government control.
As a result, the U.S. news media have played an important role as independent sources of information about government activities. The news media have served as a check on government abuse of power and facilitated democratic decision-making by providing vital information in the public interest. Journalists also have fulfilled the First Amendment value of providing a voice for political and other minority groups. Journalism in America for the last 225 years certainly has not been perfect, but it has been comparatively free, independent and successful in its constitutional role.
However, as of its 225th anniversary, in 2016, freedom of the press in the United States faced serious challenges from a President who has called journalists “the enemy of the people,” threatened to impose strict libel laws, seemingly encouraged physical attacks on journalists, threatened to revoke broadcast news organizations’ FCC licenses and labeled news organizations he dislikes as “fake news.” The Free Press at 250 project aims to educate high school and college students about the importance of free press in democracy as the First Amendment approaches its 250th anniversary in 2041.