According to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, Congress is barred from abridging the freedom of the press (“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”). In practice, the history of press freedom is far more complicated than this simple constitutional right suggests. Over time, the meaning of the First Amendment has changed greatly. The Supreme Court largely ignored the First Amendment until the 20th century, leaving the scope of press freedom to state courts and legislatures. Since World War I, jurisprudence has greatly expanded the types of publication protected from government interference. The press now has broad rights to publish criticism of public officials, salacious material, private information, national security secrets, and much else. To understand the shifting history of press freedom, however, it is important to understand not only the expansion of formal constitutional rights but also how those rights have been shaped by such factors as economic transformations in the newspaper industry, the evolution of professional standards in the press, and the broader political and cultural relations between politicians and the press.
Robert G. Parkinson
According to David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775. Two major types of print dealt with the political process of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. There were also three dozen newspaper printers in the American mainland colonies at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue every week. These weekly papers, or one-sheet broadsides that appeared in American cities even more frequently, were the most important communication avenue to keep colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a possible policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the mid-18th century.