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Freedom of the Press: Crash Course Government and Politics #26

September 11, 2019


Hi, I’m Craig and this is Crash Course Government
and Politics, and today we’re gonna finish up our discussion of the First Amendment, finally,
by talking about everybody’s favorite: the press. The First Amendment is pretty clear that Congress
can’t make any laws abridging the freedom of the press, and since you understand the
basics of free speech because you were paying attention, the reasons for this should make
a lot of sense. But as with any discussion of the First Amendment, things aren’t as straight
forward as we might think, and the freedom of the press, just like the freedom of speech,
is not absolute. [Theme Music] The main thing to know about the First Amendment
and the press is that it prevents the government from censoring the press. For the most part,
this means preventing the press from publishing some information in the first place, although
it can also mean punishing a news agency after they published something. Let’s deal with
pre-publication freedom of the press first. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Censorship of the press before a story is
published in print, broadcast on television, radio or the internet, is called prior restraint,
and the supreme court ruled that it was not allowed in a case called Near v. Minnesota.
In that case, a newspaper called The Saturday Press was gonna publish a story that the city
of Minneapolis was under the secret control of a cadre of Jewish gangsters, in particular
the mayor and chief of police. City officials obtained an injunction to stop the publication
of this story, and they gave The Saturday Press editors the opportunity to go before
a judge to prove that the story was true. I’ll get to this question of truth in a minute. The judge ordered the injunction and said
that if the newspaper violated it, they would be punished for contempt of court. Instead,
the newspaper counter-sued, claiming that Minneapolis and Minnesota were violating their
freedom of the press. The supreme court agreed that no government was allowed to censor the
press because a free press is essential for the political system to work. They based their
decision on a lot of history, including Blackstone – the British legal authority which explained
“The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists
in laying no previous restraints upon publications and not in freedom from censure from criminal
matter when published.” And they also relied on an important American
authority on the constitution: James Madison – heard of him? – who derived a lot of his
constitutional expertise from the fact that he wrote the thing. He said, “This security
of the freedom of the press requires that it should be exempt not only from previous
restraint by the executive as in Great Britain, but from legislative restraint also.” Citizens need a free press to be able to criticize
the government and to expose government wrongdoing because otherwise the government can get away
with all sorts of things that we don’t want it to, like say spying on us, and reading
our email, and reading our spy’s email! Of course, even with a free press, the government
can do this, and what constitutes a press in the age of the internet is a debatable
question. WikiLeaks, anyone? But the basic proposition that the press must be able to
protect us against an over-reaching government still stands. Thanks Thought Bubble. There’s another reason why the Court put the
kibosh on prior restraint, and that’s because if a newspaper prints something that is untrue
about the government, or more practically, about a government official, there’s a remedy
for this. The person or agency about whom the untrue thing was said or written and published
can sue the publisher for libel, and if he proves his case, can get monetary damages.
This is supposed to prevent newspapers from flat out lying about public officials, but
libel suits can cause another problem, in that they can basically end up being after
the fact censorship. If a newspaper is so afraid of a libel suit that it decides not to
publish a story, then it effectively censors itself. Sometimes courts call this a “chilling effect”
and it applies to speech that people are afraid to make because of potential lawsuit or other
punishment, as well as articles and news stories that go unpublished out of fear of potential
punishment. Tell you what, I ain’t afraid of punishment for that. I can do what I want!
Freedom of speech! Luckily for us, the Court dealt with the libel
issue in another landmark case, New York Times v. Sullivan from 1964. This case involved
an advertisement in the Times that included some inaccurate statements about the way Alabama
law enforcement was treating Civil Rights protesters including Martin Luther King Jr.
The Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner, L.B. Sullivan thought these mis-statements
amounted to libel and sued the Times. He lost at the Supreme Court, and they ruled that
the standard for libel of a public figure was actual malice, which was my nickname in
high school. This means that in order to win a libel case,
you must prove that the publisher of the libelous statement knew that the statement was false
and acted with reckless disregard, my friend’s nickname in high school, for the truth. This
is an almost impossible standard to prove, and what it means is that public figures almost
never win libel cases. This goes a long way toward explaining some of outlandish things
you read about politicians and celebrities in print, and I’m not even gonna begin to
talk about some of what you can find on the Internet, like a bearded dude talking about
government and punching eagles. Some argue that we shouldn’t feel too bad
about celebrities, and we should remember that they are celebrities and are usually
doing alright for themselves. Unflattering publicity might simply be considered the price
of fame. I’d point out that celebrities are human, too, except for Lil Bub, the only non-human
celebrity, and probably don’t like being libeled. I guess Jar-Jar Binks is another non-human
celebrity, and he gets a lot of bad press, but he truly is terrible, so it’s not libel. So it sounds like the First Amendment protection
of a free press is pretty much absolute, but there are always exceptions that make things
complicated. One of these exceptions is the question of national security. There are some
security issues that are so important that the government is allowed to censor the press
before they can print stories about them. The best example of this is that the government
can prevent the press from printing detailed descriptions of troop movements during a war,
because this would help the enemy and put soldiers’ lives at risk. It’s kinda like in
the spy movies when the bad guys learn all the names and aliases of the secret agents,
except it’s real. Knowing this, most newspapers wouldn’t print this sort of thing, at least
while it’s happening. But what about after the fact? Well, it gets
complicated, but another Supreme Court case gives us some guidance about what to expect.
In New York Times v. US — why is it always the New York Times? — the issue was whether
or not the Times could publish the Pentagon Papers. These were secret documents, stolen
from the government by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked at the Defense Department. They
showed that much of the government’s reasoning behind the Vietnam War was untrue or at least
highly questionable, hmm, I’m gonna go with untrue. The government tried to stop the Times
and the Washington Post, too, from publishing these papers, because it would make the government
look bad and perhaps turn public opinion against the war. Now, this was 1971, and a good deal
of public opinion was kind of already against the war, so much so that Lyndon Johnson had
decided not to run for re-election just a few years before in 1968. But the government
said that publication of this classified report would cause irreparable harm to America’s
ability to defend itself, and they tried to stop the publication. The Court ruled against
this prior restraint, further strengthening the First Amendment protection of the free
press. It also slapped down the executive branch, which was trying to claim its privilege
to keep state secrets. But we already mentioned this when talking about Nixon and his attempts
to hold on to the Watergate tapes. Anyway, as you can see, the First Amendment
offers a lot of protections to citizens in the press, especially when they’re criticizing
the government or its policies, or even when they’re making fun of celebrities. This is
really, really important, because American democracy relies on its citizens having enough
information to make good decisions and hold elected officials accountable. We rely on
the press to tell us what the government is doing so that we can decide whether or not
we want to let them keep doing it. If the government can keep us from getting important
or even not so important information by censoring the press or by preventing us from speaking
out against what we see as wrong, it will be able to keep doing this that might be bad,
and this is the kind of tyranny that the Framers of the Bill of Rights were most worried about.
So the more you’re concerned about tyranny, the freer you want speech and the press to
be. This is something to think about when you engage in arguments about Edward Snowden and
his NSA disclosures, or Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next time.
Crash Course Government and Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support
for Crash Course US Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports non-profits that use
technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives
at Voqal.org. Crash Course is made with the help of all of these free speakers. Thanks for watching.
That guy speaks a little too freely, if you ask me.

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