Freedom of the Press Exhibit: 1735 Peter Zenger Trial.
In 1735, Newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger was charged with seditious libel for criticizing the New York governor, William Crosby. Under William Blackstone’s “liberty of press” principle, Zenger had the right to publish his criticism. Through the assistance of his illustrious Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Hamilton, John Peter Zenger was acquitted.
In 1791, the First Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, was authored. Noteworthy is the freedom of the press clause which continues to be the subject of court and constititional interpretations It states,“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In 1798, the Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts during an undeclared naval war with France. It was to protect the government and president from criticisms or seditious acts by alien “enemy” citizens. However, it became a partisan political weapon against Jeffersonian Republicans and reporters. Thomas Jefferson denounced these acts as a violation of the First Amendment. The penalty was fines and/or imprisonment.
Thomas Cooper, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, was indicted, prosecuted, and convicted of violating the Sedition Act after he published a broadside that was sharply critical of President Adams. In part, Cooper was reacting to an article about himself that had appeared in the Reading (Pennsylvania) Advertiser. The case went to court in Philadelphia in April 1800; Cooper was convicted.
In the 1860s, during the U.S. Civil War, some restrictions were placed on the freedom of the press by the federal government. Major Winfield Scott issued an order preventing telegraph companies from sending military news. Historically, freedom of the press has been curtailed during times of war.
From 1895 to 1898, the term yellow-journalism was used to reference unethical or not-quite libel practices by news organizations or journalists. Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal are often credited for drawing the nation into the Spanish-American War with sensationalist stories, even lies, about the Maine and Cuba.
The Radio Act of 1927 was passed in an attempt to bring order to the chaos of radio broadcasting (Goodman). Prior to the Act, radio in the United States included more than 15,000 amateur stations. Key provisions to this new act were the creation of a new government commission, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), and the FRC’s right to regulate radio in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”
The Communications Act was enacted by Congress in 1934. It combined and reorganized existing provisions of law, including those in the Mann-Elkins Act (1910) and the Federal Radio Act of 1927. The 1934 Act established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the successor to the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). An independent federal agency, the FCC regulated interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable.
Political cartoons made current events and opinions accessible to many who were illiterate. The advent of Lithography allowed for rapid printmaking and wider distribution. Puck Magazine was one of the first political satire and humor periodicals in America. Prominent graphic caricaturists of the era included Clifford K. Berryman, Joseph Keppler, and Thomas Nast.
In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated Communist infiltrationof theMotion-Picture Industry. “The Hollywood Ten” a group of writers and directors claiming First Amendment rights, refused to name names of suspected communists or testify before the committee. As a result, they were found guilty of contempt of congress and were sentenced to between 6 and 12 months in prison. “The Hollywood 10” were blacklisted, which had a devastating effect on their careers. In 1958, the HUAC held its last hearings on the entertainment industry.
McCarthyism – Refers to Senator Joseph McCarthy and his methods of exposing suspected Communists in the 1950's. Recognized as a militant crusader who preyed upon the fears generated by the Cold War, his investigative tactics were likened to modern day witch hunts.
In 1971, the Pentagon Papers – the Defense Department’s classified documents of the United States military involvement in Vietnam – were leaked to The New York Times. A temporary restraining order was imposed by the Department of Justice to cease publication, on the basis that releasing this information would compromise national security. On June 30, the Supreme Court - in NY Times v. the United States - ruled in favor of the newspaper. Revelation of the Pentagon Papers proved that the U.S. military was lying about the war and disclosed the government’s attempt to suppress freedom of the press.
In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the NY Times versus Sullivan case, that the freedom of the press clause is not dependent on the truthfulness of an idea in state cases. The libel suite against the NY Times “Heed Their Voices Rising” advertisements critizing the actions of Montgomery Alabama’s police commissioner L.B. Sullivan, was overturned. This decision eased the news coverage of the civil-rights movement in the South. In 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was implemented to ensure public assess to U.S. government records.
From the 1980’s to the 1990’s, many of the traditional means of delivering information were being superceded by new media technologies, offering potential advantages to journalist seeking to maintain freedom of the press. The Internet, Satellite T.V., and Blogging, also known as web-based publishing, were some ways of using new technology to disseminate news information. The federal government has generally been slow to regulate these modes of communication.
The Communications Decency Act was passed by President Clinton in 1996 as a first attempt to regulate indecency on the Internet, specifically pornography. In 1997, in a landmark cyber-law decision (ACLU v. Reno), the U.S. Supreme Court overturned part of the law based on free speech advocates working to overturn the portion relating to indecent, but not obscene speech.
In the new millenium, the First Amendment’s Freedom of the Press clause has been in the forefront of the news. The 2001 U.S.A. Patriot Act and attorney general’s John Ashcroft’s actions after the Sept. 11th attacks have both been criticized as an assault on our civil liberties. The Bush Administration has consequently been at the center of this debate.
In the popular media, radio personality Don Imus’s controversial comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team on April 4, 2007 has kept the debate of how what is freedom of the press and what is freedom of speech alive. As a result of his sexist and racist comments, Don Imus lost his job at CBS radio and had to make a public apology.
Presently, the New York Times continues to be involved in Freedom of the Press issues. From New York Times reporters refusal to give up confidential sources to a new bill shielding reporting from revealing their sources to federal courts, protection of the “freedom of the press” clause remains fundamental to our liberties. The Patriot Act has recently brought libraries and librarians into the debate.