(EDITOR’S NOTE: Oct. 3-9 is National Newspaper Week, which has the theme, “Newspapers … the People’s Product.”)
A free press is one of the bulwarks of a free society. Without it, there can be no consent of the governed, no informed decision-making, and no check on the abuses of power.
One of the vital roles of the press is to encourage citizens to participate in government by keeping them fully informed about life, law, politics, economics and other things that matter. As the later Justice Potter Stewart put it in 1972: “Enlightened choice by an informed citizenry is the basic ideal upon which an open society is premised, and a free press is thus indispensable to a free society.”
Here are some examples – based on eight Supreme Court cases – that illustrate these points:
• New York Times v. Sullivan (1964)
Press freedoms must be strong, even in libel cases. As the Supreme Court declared in this landmark press case: “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open . . . .”
• Gertz v. Welch (1974)
Defamation laws notwithstanding, if the press is to serve its public role it must have wide latitude in reporting and commenting on public figures and on how what they do affects our society.
• Near v. Minnesota (1931)
Getting the news to the people is so vital that under the First Amendment there can be no prior restraints on the right of the press to publish the news.
• New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) (Pentagon Papers Case)
So important is the role of a press that even claims of national security seldom if ever justify bans on publishing sensitive stories concerning the workings of government.
• Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976)
Court orders prohibiting the press from reporting on public trials violate the First Amendment because they interfere with the public’s right to receive information concerning the administration of justice.
• Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia (1980)
Private justice is no justice. That is why public and press access to criminal court trials must be safeguarded.
• Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. (1979)
Sometimes press rights and privacy rights collide. Even so, privacy concerns must yield whenever the press publishes truthful information about matters of public importance.
• The Florida State Bar v. B.F.J. (1989)
The public’s right to know about the workings of our criminal justice system is important. That is why the First Amendment protects the right of the press to publicize information contained in police reports even when that information concerns the victims of crime.
(The First Amendment Center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Arlington, Va., works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.)
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