Press Censorship

The concept of “freedom of the press” was established in New York when it was still a British colony. In 1734, John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was charged with libel against colonial governor William Cosby when he printed articles critical of Cosby’s decision to remove the chief justice of New York from office. He was imprisoned for nine months before his case went to trial. Philadelphia attorney Andrew Hamilton argued that statements could not be libelous if they were true. Although English law did not accept truth as a defense to libel, Hamilton pressed the issue with the jury, which found Zenger not guilty on August 4, 1735. This case set a precedent that truth is an absolute defense to libel.

Over the years, freedom of the press has been an important element of American society. Newspapers have traditionally been given considerable leeway in what they publish, and there has never been a shortage of opinions expressed in print in the United States. Nonetheless, censorship is hardly unknown in the press, or in broadcast news programs.

Often, the press censorship is voluntary. In times of war, for example, the press is careful about publishing material that could provide enemy forces with sensitive information about U.S. troops. On a more personal level, public figures were long afforded the courtesy of not having their private lives printed in newspapers or broadcast through other media. President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not stand unassisted after his 1921 bout with polio, but during his presidency the press voluntarily refrained from publishing photographs or releasing film footage of Roosevelt being assisted or using a wheelchair. (As the twentieth century progressed, this sort of courtesy eroded steadily, which sometimes may have given the public more information than it wanted about the private lives of public figures.)

Also, the press and broadcast media have often felt compelled to be sensitive to advertisers and sponsors. There are countless examples of brave publications running unsympathetic stories about advertisers, who would promptly cancel all future advertising with the offending publication. And there are examples of publications refusing to run stories that could offend a potential advertiser. But these are not examples of government-sanctioned censorship.

That said, there have been charges of government censorship over the years from the press, particularly during war time. One of the most noteworthy exam-ples comes from the Iraq War, which began in March 2003. Not long after the war began, the Pentagon issued an order banning the release of photographs of flag-draped military coffins returning from the battle zone. (The ban had actually been in effect for several years before the war but not enforced.) Proponents of the ban argued that publishing the photos did a disservice to the privacy of the fallen soldiers and their families. Opponents of the ban countered that it was nothing more than a public relations ploy to minimize the true scope of American war casualties.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966, establishes the public’s right to obtain information from any agency of the federal government. Any group or individual (foreign nationals as well as American citizens) can file a request. Each government agency is required by law to provide the public with information on how to file FOIA requests. There are exemptions to FOIA, including national security information, internal personnel information, confidential business information, inter- and intra-agency confidential communications, law enforcement records, financial institutions, and geological information. FOIA was amended in 1996 to allow increased access to electronic information.


Inside Press Censorship