Dr. Eileen Lynch
15. Mass Media and Government
Define prior restraint and libel. How do these concepts relate to freedom of press? Discuss and evaluate how the Supreme Court has protected or curbed freedom of press.
“Prior restraint” is defined in the text book as the censoring of news stories by the government before publication.
“Libel” is a published or broadcast report that exposes a person to public contempt or injures the person’s reputation.
One of the cornerstones of the public self-image of any American is the Bill of Rights, and central to the idea of protected universal humane rights is the one for Freedom of Speech. It is held in a quasi-religious reverence almost universally, but often in daily life practice is difficult to find the practical limits that should or should not be applied to such a basic freedom.
Once upon a time I heard a quotation to the effect that every single personal freedom only extends as far as the exact point where the next person’s freedoms begin. Being young, and fairly pigheaded, I thought to myself that, upon reflection, it was not really my lookout if everyone’s freedoms began so very far away, then.
As the years went by and brought with them clarity and perspective, I realized that I might have been wrong in viewing the situation in that manner. However, it made me realize that perhaps many people view the situation in a similar manner, and then that is how difficulties arise when protecting or curbing some of these freedoms.
In specific, in this country we rely on the laws of the land to protect and curb certain actions instead of basing such regulation in an esoteric idiosyncratic focus. For example, in the matter of prior restraint against public information media there have been certain instances where the Supreme Court has had to intervene and interpret what the Bill of Rights had to say in respect to that and how it should be interpreted in reference to the present time frame when the question at hand arose. Seventy years ago the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Minneapolis weekly newspaper saying that even though they might be rascals, they could not be suppressed if they wanted to call city officials “corrupt and grafting” sons of a bee. However, the Court announced that the press could be censored in advance by the government in very “exceptional cases” during wartime or other times. After several cases cropped up where there had to be a resolution handed out, it almost always ended up favoring a newspaper against prior restraint by the government. However, even up to the present the issue remains largely unresolved.
In the question of libel, the freedom the press enjoys has been slightly curbed by something called alternatively the New York Times rule or the Sullivan rule. If in fact the statement that offended can be shown to be the honest truth, then there can be no reparations for damages to the insulted party. Which I guess only adds injury to insult. Especially since the Supreme Court has made it almost impossible to libel a public figure, advocating for a robust and vehement debate on public issues, which could include attacks on government officials. However, in an effort to establish some limiting factors, the Supreme Court established some very narrow parameters as to who could be considered a public person, stating that a private person could not become a public entity by the mere expedient of being involved in a matter of public interest.
These matters seem to actually restrain the freedom of speech that the press enjoys, but the fact remains that in modern times a large section of the public has come to believe the press’ claims that they are the “fourth power” in the check and balance proposition which is the American Government, granting themselves quasi-official status to mediate and equilibrate the interactions between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of the government and the American public. So then, as with any other of the branches of the government, they will have to operate within a framework that narrowly inhibits any tendency to overstep the trust that many Americans place on them.
Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American System, 10th Edition, Milton C. Cummings, Jr., David Wise, Thomson