December 28, 2011

Uncovering the historical definition of “the press”

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:35

Elizabeth sent me a link to this Dan Smyth post on what the US Founding Fathers understood the term “the press” to mean:

If the Founders wanted to protect in particular who today we call media, reporters, etc. with “freedom of…the press,” then surely the Founders could have written, for example, “freedom of … journalists” or “freedom of … newsmongers.”

Volokh describes how, with no significant exceptions, prominent writers the Founders often cited, including William Blackstone, Jean-Louis De Lolme, and George Tucker, connected press freedom with the right of every “freeman,” “citizen,” or “individual” to “write,” “print,” or “publish” his or her thoughts. This fact implies the Founders didn’t intend the press clause to protect the existing or future collection of “newsmongers” per se but rather to recognize the right of any person (or “freeman”) to use printing presses (Until 1694, England imposed licenses on publications, which the Founders abhorred). James Madison’s following first draft of the Bill of Rights’ speech/press clauses highlights this point: “The people [emphasis added] shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.” According to Johnson’s dictionary, “people” had such definitions as “a nation,” “men, or per[s]ons in general,” and “the commonality.”

Volokh provides much more evidence for the press clause’s “the press” being the printing press, particularly his evaluations of U.S. court cases from the Founding to 2011 that demonstrate judges have consistently interpreted the press clause as protecting any individuals who use the printing press, including newspaper advertisers and authors of letters to the editor, pamphlets, and books. Volokh describes how it was only the 1970s when some lower courts began interpreting the press clause’s “the press” to be a collection of journalists and not the printing press as a technology.


  1. Although we are not in the US, it is a timely article for exposing exactly what “the press” meant. As we have various levels of government and political parties deciding only accredited journalists be allowed to attend or report on government matters, we are reminded that “the press” is only the vehicle of dissemination of thought, not the person writing it. Therefore anyone who has the vehicle (computer, press, camera, etc.) should be allowed to use it for their opinion not just accredited journalists.

    Comment by Wallhouse Wart — December 28, 2011 @ 11:47

  2. It certainly makes the recent Liberal Party announcement that they do not plan to accredit any bloggers to cover their leadership convention seem even more out-of-touch.

    Comment by Nicholas — December 28, 2011 @ 12:11

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