Whose press freedom?

By Chris Daly

Today’s Times includes a “sidebar” piece (column?) by legal correspondent Adam Liptak. I found it frustrating for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it is a bit of a mystery why it is running now (except for the thin reed of the anniversary of the Citizens United ruling from the Supreme Court). There is no discernible “news peg.” But that’s not really important.

What is more frustrating is that the piece provides so few links to the scholarly literature on this vast subject. That’s where the Times could have really used the Web to help its readers go deeper. I am going to try to find some of this material and post those links here.

Meanwhile, let me throw out a thought: At the time the Founders enshrined the idea of “freedom of the press” in the Bill of Rights, the press of the day was small, local, independent, and opinionated. The typical form of ownership was a “sole proprietorship” — that is, the printer who ran the press owned the business entirely himself. But even then, many “job printers” handled printing chores for all manner of customers, including customers whom they disagreed with. So, in that scenario, who enjoyed press freedom? The owner of the business that facilitated the mass communication? The author of the words? Both?

Keep in mind, the main goal of the founders was to prevent “prior restraint” — the use of government power to prevent certain facts or ideas from ever getting published in the first place. That seems like as worthy a goal as ever. Therefore, the rights of all individual human beings who want to communicate with other individual human beings should be protected from government interference. That, it seems to me, ought to be the operating principle here.

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Filed under history, Journalism, media, New York Times, Supreme Court

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