Why a Free Media Means a Free Society

While a majority of Americans are able to correctly name freedom of speech as a right protected by the First Amendment, the amendment’s other clauses are less well known, with only one in 10 individuals able to name freedom of the press as a specific right. Although it is not as widely reviewed or discussed as its companion clauses within the First Amendment, the constitutional guarantee that the government cannot encroach on a free press remains a vital prerequisite to a functioning free society.

It is easy to believe that freedom of the press is only applicable to the institution of journalism and those who comprise it. But the purpose of the provision extends far beyond the news media; it secures the freedom of expression of society as a whole. “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Jay in 1786, “nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

But how so? At its heart, freedom of the press ensures citizens access to reason, to information, to deliberation. In another letter, this time to Edward Carrington, Jefferson wrote that “the basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

If the cornerstone of a free and just society is an open marketplace of ideas — where competition of thought and debate are requisite tools to find the truth— then a media free to investigate and educate on the shortcomings of its government becomes essential to society’s functioning.

This rationale has been a centerpiece for the landmark court cases protecting press freedom against prior restraint by the government. Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart (1976) found that “a whole community cannot be restrained from discussing a subject intimately affecting life within it.” The per curiam opinion in New York Times v. United States (1971) contended that vague invocation of ideas like “security” cannot be manipulated “to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment.” In these cases it was found that it was unconstitutional for journalists to be required to seek “permission” to publish from the government they were reporting on.

A governing body in a democratic society is must be able to be held accountable by the governed. But this can only happen if the people are informed. In this way, freedom of the press is not just about protecting journalists, television stations, newspapers, citizen reporters, and bloggers. It is also a protection of the individual’s right to access what is needed to make informed decisions and guard against abuses of power.

An independent media is inextricably tied to the continued operation and success of a free society and constitutes a vital component of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. That’s why the Charles Koch Foundation is proud to be a Platinum Sponsor for the Newseum’s upcoming Free Expression Awards, which “recognize those who exhibit passion for and dedication to free expression, including those who have taken personal or professional risks in sharing information with the public, are censored or punished by authorities or groups for their work, or show courage by pushing boundaries in artistic and media expression.” You can learn more about the awards here.

Additionally, in order to promote further study into the state of toleration and the proper role of free speech in society, the Charles Koch Foundation invites proposals for research.

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