The First Amendment to the US Constitution proclaims that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...."

Why is (or was) it necessary to specifically mention freedom of the press if free speech is already guaranteed? Wouldn't the former be covered under the latter, since the press would be simply exercising their right to free speech in exchange for money?


5 Answers 5


The Maryland Law Review published an article summarizing several sources of the U.S. freedom of the press (Bogen, 1983).

Parliamentary Privilege

Prior to the American revolution, freedom of press and speech were only applied to members of Parliament as a part of their official duties. At this point the two rights were distinct: members of Parliament established the freedom to openly debate matters of policy and criticize the crown (freedom of speech), as well as the freedom to publish and circulate their own documents (such as laws) without the crown's interference.

However, this only protected Parliament from the executive. It didn't protect citizens from any part of the government. In the colonies (as well as under the Articles of Confederation) American legislatures adopted this standard. Eventually, the Bill of Rights extended this to all Americans.

Censorship & Libel

One of the historical concerns behind the freedom of the press is the threat of censorship and libel. Many of these concerns were directly related to printing technology. In English history, the government had established printing monopolies and strict licensure rules, as well as censorship, to control what could be printed. Freedom the press is intended to prevent the American government from doing this.

Additionally, Parliament had previously sued some printers for libel. Parliamentary privilege at one time prohibited anyone from publishing what was said in Parliament. When people started printing those records, Parliament responded with libel suits. Freedom of the press also addresses this concern, by making it clear that the press can publish the affairs of government.

This isn't mentioned in the article, but some of the founding fathers were printing professionals and would have been familiar with some of these issues.

Press and Speech

The authors of the Constitution and First Amendment considered "publishing" and "the press" to be different things. However, the two concepts are related. Madison said:

"The people 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.

In this sense, freedom of speech encompasses both the right of citizens to speak and publish their views. Freedom of the press is specifically the protection of the printing industry from undue government influence.

Jefferson recommended using this language:

The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak or to write or otherwise to publish any thing but false facts ...

At this point, there is no mention of freedom for the press.

  • 1
    More specifically, to keep from having a goverment approved press, those with an exclusive right to report on goverment related news.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 14:39
  • 1
    Imagine how different things would be today if it was not unconstitutional to punish people for spreading false facts... Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 20:12

Many Constitutional scholars argue that these are not redundant clauses. Remember, during this time the printing press was still a relatively new invention. Freedom of the press likely refers to protecting use of the press as a technology, as opposed to an industry.

Freedom of speech may well overlap with the duties of the press as an industry, but the Framers also wanted to ensure the right of every citizen to use the printing press itself, as well as any technological advances in printing technology thereafter.

  • 4
    Recommend including a citation to the constitutional scholars referenced. Commented May 5, 2017 at 15:18
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    UCLA law professor and constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh provides a plethora of sources in his work "Freedom For the Press as an Industry, Or For the Press as a Technology? From the Framing to Today". www2.law.ucla.edu/volokh/press.pdf
    – Jon Letko
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 15:52
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    The printing press was invented about 1440, the US Constitution is from 1787, more than 300 years later. That is a relatively new invention?
    – Uwe
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 18:57
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    law.stackexchange.com/a/6619/10024 this answer at law.se presents Professor Volokh's view alongside a counter-view that "the press" means a particular group of people. They had a nice discussion of the two alternatives in a podcast episode linked in that answer. I think this answer is somewhat incomplete without presenting the alternative that other constitutional scholars and some present and former Supreme Court justices find convincing. Your answer gives me the impression that the issue is more settled than it actually is.
    – K-C
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 23:35
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    The first printing presses in North America were installed at Cambridge in 1638, at Philadelphia in 1686 and at Germantown in 1735. This technology existed in the area of the USA a century before the US Constitution, but in Europe for more than three centuries. What is the maximum age of a relatively new invention?
    – Uwe
    Commented May 6, 2017 at 20:18

Wouldn't the former be covered under the latter, since the press would be simply exercising their right to free speech in exchange for money?

The distinction between speech and press is the same as the distinction between slander and libel. The first is about saying words aloud. The second is about writing words down and disseminating them.

More modernly the difference between speech and press is less clear. For example, am I speaking now? Or publishing? Since both are covered by the first amendment, we generally don't care. Further, we've gotten in the habit of saying free speech for many things that are not speech, e.g. interpretive dance or nude photos. So now it seems perfectly reasonable to include written works under speech, which makes press seem redundant. But originally these were two distinct rights.

  • 3
    This reads more like something you deduced on your own in isolation based on your understanding of the current meanings of those terms, rather than an interpretation in the context of the original construction of the First Amendment. This answer is a good example of the latter, and this comment gives a nice hint at possible deeper interpretations.
    – Jason C
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 23:58

It may indeed be redundant now. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not list this as a separate right, but instead incorporates it into the general right of opinion and expression:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

But at the time of the framing of the Constitution these ideas were still very new, and the framers may have felt it necessary to be more specific.

In addition, freedom of the press can be considered to include the processes that journalists use to gather the news, not just publishing it. Although this is obviously not considered absolute -- news gathering is not a defense to crimes like breaking and entering.

  • Not a downvoter, but I think this answer would be improved with support. How do you know freedom of the press includes the stuff journalists do? Were these concepts really new to the framers of the Constitution? Why in particular did they feel the need to be specific? Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 17:13
  • I'm not a historian, I wouldn't know where to do good research on to confirm my opinion.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 15, 2019 at 17:57

It is likely necessary simply to distinguish the dissemination of ideas vocally (speech) from their dissemination through writing, and printing and publishing (the press). These have historically been owned and monetized or regulated separately. Printing presses are representative of significant concentration of finances and effort and hence are appealing to those who seek for power to control others. (One could point to numerous historical examples of destruction or other manipulation of printing presses by those seeking to control or to suppress its power). The stipulation of this amendment is that government and all other parties should not be allowed to control or suppress either the individual's freedom of speech in whatever venue he may be afforded, or his right to express and disseminate his opinions and discoveries via written or printed matter. The printing press was identified as needing specific protection, since it is vastly more efficient to communicate to a broad audience via mass-produced printed works than it is to hire an office full of scribes to copy and share one's written manuscripts.

This protection is analogous to the necessity of modern protection of electronic media from government control, since it is to an even greater degree generally easier and vastly more efficient today to express one's views on a virtual soapbox platform than it is to circulate ideas through private text messaging, phone calls, personal speech and printed matter combined. Imagine having to hand-copy every Facebook post you like, send it to your printer, and tape it on other people's doors or place it in their mailboxes in order to get your own word around.


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