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What Does the First Amendment Mean for Americans?
Freedom of speech and religion, as well as the press
The first amendment in the United States Constitution is probably the most well-known amendment. It includes freedom of speech and religion and also the press. Freedom of the press was established in 1735 when the New York Weekly Journal publication, a newspaper by John Peter Zenger, got him arrested and tried for seditious libel. He was found innocent under Alexander Hamilton’s argument that he could not be arrested for printing the truth and thus, freedom of the press was born. The First Amendment was violated decades later in 1798 with the Sedition Act. The law barred anyone from speaking (or printing) anything that went against the American government. The act was passed to help with national security but sparked many debates over freedom of speech and the press. Once Adams lost the presidency in 1800 to Jefferson, the act wasn’t renewed and many of the people who were prosecuted under the former law were freed.
Freedom of Press: Overview
When freedom of the press was added to the First Amendment, the language of the clause only prevented the legislative branch from passing laws that limit the press but over the years the courts have interpreted it to also prohibit censorship. The clause has been boarded quite a bit but new limits have also come about. This is seen in the Supreme Court ca Brandenburgurg v. Hayes (1972). In this case, Brazenburg, a journalist in Kentucky wrote a story about drug creation and use after interviewing two people, who he kept anonymous. Brandenburg was called to testify in court on two occasions, both of which he refused. The main legal question here is does the requirement that journalists appear before grand juries to testify violates freedom of speech and press? The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that no, it does not violate the first amendment. They said that if the confidential information that the reporter is being asked to share gives the state a “compelling” and “paramount” interest, the requirement is constitutional. Because the average citizen is usually required to disclose confidential information in court, journalists do not have the privilege to withhold that same kind of information. (Oyez.com). Defamation also limits speech and press in some cases. This is when a person’s reputation is damaged by either written (libel) or spoken (slander) words. An example of this can be seen in the well-known Supreme Court case New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964). The New York Times published an ad during the Civil Rights Movement defending Martin Luther King Jr. The ad contained a few small inaccuracies which led the Public Safety Commissioner, Sullivan to write to the New York Times and ask them to take the ad down because he felt it reflected badly on him even though he was not explicitly mentioned in the ad. New York Times refused which then led Sullivan to file a libel suit against Times. The state court affirmed the case and awarded Sullivan monetary compensation for the damages. Times appealed to the Supreme Court. The court unanimously ruled in favor of the New York Times.
Provisions on “true evil”
The court says that the media cannot be charged with libel when dealing with public figures unless the target can prove “actual malice”, which means knowingly disregarding the truth. However, the “actual malice” stipulation only applies to public figures. The media can still be found guilty of libel when dealing with private citizens without having that kind of proof. (Oyez.com). While mass media mediums have changed throughout the years, success with the switch from newspapers to online news, there are still several functions that the media provides. They include surveillance, interpretation, and socialization. Surveillance can be split into two different types: public and private. Public surveillance is when the media collects information and distributes it to the public. Public surveillance allows the media to shape what the public sees. Reporters and news people decide what stories they release and when they release them. They can also frame news to come off as something good or bad or important or unimportant. Private surveillance is something that is acted out by an individual. A person can research a topic that interests them or learn more about something that scares them. For example, someone is thinking about buying a house in a city they don’t know much about.
What does “previous restriction” mean?
Typically the courts disagree with most forms of censorship because they usually directly violate the First Amendment. However, there are limits on the First Amendment and sometimes censorship is not always negative. A term that is important to know when talking about censorship is ‘prior restraint’. This refers to when the government takes action to prevent something from being said or published before it is said or published. The landmark Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. the United States (1971), commonly known as the “Pentagon Papers Case” deals with censorship and prior restraint. The Nixon administration tried to prevent major news sources from publishing classified materials that belonged to the Defense Department. President Nixon argued that the use of prior restraint was to protect national security. The New York Times as well as the Washington Post argued that this violated the First Amendment. The court ruled in a per curiam decision that, yes, in this case, prior restraint does violate the First Amendment. Since the publication of the papers would not create a direct threat to national security, the media cannot be prohibited to publish them. (Oyez.com). For the most part, media censorship is generally okay if the censorship will aid in national security.
How to make sure the news is credible?
Other things such as gag orders are also useful when conducting fair trials. A majority of people look to the news to gather all their information about politics. There is no other way for someone to remain informed about political figures and events without reading, watching, or listening to some type of news (after all, not everyone majors in political science and learns about politics in a classroom setting). The media need to provide this type of information to people so they know what is going on in their local and national governments. Without political news coverage, it becomes hard for the average citizen to stay informed. However, there are so many news outlets now that it becomes hard to differentiate when is credible, what is “fake news” and what is biased and what is not. Someone watching Fox News may have many different political opinions than someone who watches MSNBC or even C-Span. And then someone who reads Buzzfeed articles might believe things that someone who reads BBC knows is false. It is so easy to come across news articles while scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, it is easy to become overwhelmed. While it is okay to have preferences on where you get your news, it is also important to try and view different sides of stories and make sure the news you’re intaking is credible.