Module JC010

US Media and Press Law
 

Module author

Allan A. Ryan

Harvard University
and

Boston College Law School
USA

Learning objectives After you have worked through this module, you will be able to:
  • Understand the essential elements of laws affecting the press and the media in the United States
  • Explain the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the US Constitution
  • Trace the historical development of freedom of the press and US media law
  • Recognize the ways in which freedom of the press can conflict with other important social values, such as the right to a fair trial
  • Identify the basics of prior restraint, defamation, journalists' privilege not to testify, copyright, access to information, and related concepts
  • Understand the limitations of government regulation of the media in the US
  • Discuss the future of media law in a rapidly changing digital environment.
Contents

1. The Constitutional Basis for Press and Media Law in the United States
1.1 The First Amendment to the US Constitution
1.2 The Development of Free Speech Doctrine
1.3 Free Speech Doctrines Applied to "Freedom of the Press"
1.4 Freedom of the Press and Defamation
1.5 The "Lonely Pamphleteer" Goes Digital

2. Freedom of the Press and the Right to a Fair Trial
2.1 Control of the Press and Control of the Courtroom
2.2 Reporting of Truthful Information

3. A Journalist's Right (If It is One) not to Reveal Confidential Sources

4. Searches of News Organizations

5. Constraints on Publication of Classified and National Security Information

6. Regulation of Print, Broadcasting, and Advertising

7. Access to Information and the Right of Privacy
7.1 Access to Places
7.2 Access to Information
7.3 The Right of Privacy

8. The Protection of Copyright

9. Freedom of the Press, the Internet, and the Future of Media Law in a Digital Environment

Study points 2
Preview US Media and Press Law

 

Why Open School of Journalism believes that media and press law is important

The U.S. Constitution's first amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." This amendment gives a greater deal of freedom to the U.S. press and media. However, since then, the U.S. Congress has passed several laws that curb some of the press freedom, with the most recent one being the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. The growth of digital media and the controversies surrounding several incidences involving national security have placed a greater scrutiny on the press freedom. This module is intended to shed light on the U.S. Media and Press law, its strengths and limitations, and its effect in the digital environment.

 

Why study press law?

For journalists and reporters working for the press, the freedom of the press is an important aspect for them to work fearlessly to report the truth. Placing curbs on what can be reported severely deteriorates this freedom. The consequences of not following the press and media laws could result in charges and arrests. This module is intended to make the reader aware of several press and media laws that have to be taken into account during the journalism work.

If one looks at the history of the U.S. Media law, one can see that there have been several laws passed by the congress to limit the press freedom. The curb started in 1798 with the passing of the Alien and Sedition Act in which the congress restricted any speech critical of the government. In 1917, the congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to insult the U.S. Government, the military, the flag, or the Constitution. The Smith Act of 1940 added additional curbs on the printed media that had the potential to overthrow the government. A most recent act, the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, included even greater restrictions on conveying the information related to terrorism, a term that was loosely defined.

The U.S. reporters have the right to not reveal the source for the information, a right that is granted by the first amendment. This right is also further protected by several U.S. states with the passing of their own laws. However, the courts have not always sided with the reporters on this right, and there have been several incidences of arrests of reporters for not revealing the source. A few examples include William Farr from Los Angeles Times in 1976 for not revealing the information source related to the Charles Manson murder trial, Vanessa Leggett in 2001 for not revealing the source for the information related to her research on Texas murder case, and Judith Miller of New York Times in 2005 for not revealing the source related to a government investigation.

There are also other areas where the information is considered as sensitive and could have an economic impact. A good example is revealing a company's financial position. Even though one has the right to reveal information because of the press freedom, it could have larger implications economically, and could result in the downfall of a company. The U.S Congress has published multiple laws prohibiting the financial disclosure for public companies that could present ethical issues and financial turmoil. The management team members of the public companies are under extreme scrutiny for ethical violations in regard to using or disclosing the information that could have an economic impact.

In today's digital environment, it is very important to have an in-depth knowledge of the laws related to press and media. Any aspiring press reporters need to be fully aware of the various U.S. Media laws and the limitations on the freedom of press. One cannot take the first amendment rights for granted as some of the laws could result in additional restrictions on the information disclosure. While a press reporter has the right to not reveal the source related to confidential information, one needs to be aware of the aspects of not revealing the information as the courts have not always sided with this aspect.

 

Overview of this module

This module provides a broader perspective on the key elements of the U.S. laws related to the press and the media, including the historical backgrounds related to the freedom of the press and the U.S. Media law. The module dwells on different topics such as a journalists' privilege not to testify and the right to a fair trial, and includes discussions on the future of medial law in a rapidly changing digital environment.

The module starts with the constitutional basis, such as first amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the free speech doctrine. It provides a detailed explanation on freedom of the press and the right to a fair trial. Several hotly debated topics such as a journalist's right not to reveal confidential sources and constraints on publishing classified information are covered. The module provides a detailed account of the regulation of print, broadcasting, and advertising media. It also covers the privacy topics such as the right of privacy, and access to places and information. Also included in the course content is a detailed account of the copyright act and how it is protected. The module concludes by providing insight on the future of media law in a digital environment, covering topics such as the internet and the freedom of the press.

At the end of the module, you should have a complete understanding of the U.S. Media and press laws, including their flaws and limitations, and how they are applied in today's digital world. You should have a greater understanding of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press specified in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. You should also be able to recognize the ways in which freedom of the press can conflict with other important social values, such as the right to a fair trial. The module should provide you a greater understanding on the basics of prior restraint, defamation, journalists' privilege not to testify, copyright, access to information, and related concepts. After completing this module, you should be well equipped to properly interpret and apply the media law in a rapidly changing digital environment.