5 Things Every American Should Know About Freedom of the Press - Law and Daily Life
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5 Things Every American Should Know About Freedom of the Press

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, recognized by the United Nations as a day to celebrate the "fundamental principles of press freedom" -- a freedom that many Americans often take for granted.

What exactly does "freedom of the press" mean in the United States? To help answer that question, here are five things every American should know:

1. What the First Amendment Says.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." This small phrase, "or of the press," is the legal genesis for free speech rights in the United States.

This phrase began as a restriction for only the federal government with respect to speech and the press. But with incorporation under the 14th Amendment, these protections were later applied to state and local governments too.

2. The Difference Between Free Speech and a Free Press.

There's still a question as to whether the First Amendment confers any specific privileges on the press that it doesn't give to every individual American. However, some courts have argued that the press does have exclusive immunities when it comes to defamation.

3. Who Is a Member of the Press?

Because there is no strict doctrinal difference between freedom of expression of an individual and "the press," there is no requirement that a journalist belong to any press institution. Anyone can have freedom of publication and be a "journalist," regardless of their association (or lack thereof) with a media source.

4. When Can Journalists Be Jailed?

There have been situations in which journalists have been jailed for protecting their sources in contradiction of court orders or law enforcement investigations. While rare in the United States, this happens much more commonly worldwide.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 211 journalists have been jailed worldwide as of 2013. The most common reasons are for contempt of court or trespassing.

5. What Does a 'Chilling Effect' on Press Freedom Mean?

When First Amendment rights are perceived to be at risk, you'll often hear the term "chilling effect." What exactly does that mean?

Government action can have a "chilling effect" on freedom of expression when it indirectly serves to stifle speech or the press. The U.S. Supreme Court first used the term in Wieman v. Updegraff in 1952 (a case involving an Oklahoma policy that required loyalty oaths for state employees).

"Chilling" freedom of the press is not limited to broad government policies, however. It can also happen when parties use the court system to stifle others' speech or publication.

Armed with this knowledge, you may begin to appreciate the freedom of the press a bit more.

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