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Defenders of Liberty: The People and the Press


Freedom of speech or the press did not exist in the colonies before the Constitution. British subjects were under the authority of the king, and the king punished dissenters. The king also controlled the press and censored content before it was published. After the colonists fought and won independence from England, the rules were changed when the Constitution was written.

Remembering the king’s actions, the Framers designed a government with three branches and a system of checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. They also made the federal government responsible for protecting individual liberties and accountable to a separate, but all powerful group, the People.

Thomas Jefferson viewed the press as the “only safeguard for public liberty” and an informed citizenry as “the best army” for the task. Freedom of the press was seen as vital for protecting democracy so the Framers linked it to speech and included both in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law … abridging freedom of speech, or of the press…”

Experience not only made its mark on the Constitution, but it also affected judicial interpretations that followed. In World War I, the Supreme Court upheld government actions against people in the interest of national security. Over the next 200 years, the Court would continue to grapple with freedom of expression issues in wartime. All the while, a watchful press would keep the public informed and debate alive. In 1971, the Supreme Court reaffirmed freedom of the press even in the midst of a war by allowing the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It had come full circle in its views.

This lesson is based on the Annenberg Classroom video that explores the evolution of the free press doctrine, Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States

Download the lesson plan.