With respect to governmental information, any government may distinguish which materials are public or protected from disclosure to the public based on classification of information as sensitive, classified or secret and being otherwise protected from disclosure due to relevance of the information to protecting the national interest. Many governments are also subject to sunshine laws or freedom of information legislation that are used to define the ambit of national interest. Freedom of the press, which has been limited not only by governments but at times by churches, is absolute in no country.
In modern democracies it is rarely attacked by overt forms of censorship but is often compromised by governments’ ability to withhold information, by self-censorship in reaction to various pressures, by selective government “leaking” of information or disinformation, and by other factors. In the United States, freedom of the press and the broader freedom of speech are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution and are considered fundamental rights of the people. In practice, though, some kinds of speech and publication (e. g.
, obscenity or violations of copyright) are considered outside the amendment’s purview, and others, like commercial speech (advertising or product claims), receive a reduced level of protection. In addition, broadcasters are subject to government licensing requirements. The protections to be afforded users of on-line computer services, the Internet, and other new means of publication are the focus of a developing debate; in 1996 a federal district court panel struck down the new Communications Decency Act, holding that Internet communications were entitled to the same degree of protection as printed communications.
History Historically, restriction of the press has occurred in two ways. The first may be either censorship or mandatory licensing by the government in advance of publication; the second is punishment for printed material, especially that considered by the government to be seditious libel. Censorship of the press began not long after the invention of the printing press. Pope Alexander VI issued (1501) a notice requiring printers to submit copy to church authorities before publication, in order to prevent heresy.
Penalties for bypassing the censors included fines and excommunication. Key Principles -Publishing was liberalized, with the law requiring only that publishers present their names to the authorities and deposit two copies of every work. -The authorities were denied the power to suppress newspapers. -This had previously enabled prosecutions of critics of the government, monarchy and church, or of those who argued for controversial ideas on property rights.
– The scope of libel was severely reduced, with the criteria for defamation being much more tightly defined -A limited number of “press offences” was retained, including outraging public morals, and insulting high-ranking public officials including the President of the Republic, heads of foreign states and ambassadors. Scope -It applies to statements made publicly, whether through oral or printed means. -In recent years, French courts have repeatedly ruled that the law also applies to defamatory content communicated via the World Wide Web. Defenses
-Truth of the defamatory statement is available as a defense in most libel cases other than those concerning the privacy of the plaintiff. -Where privacy is infringed, truth is not an absolute defense, though some latitude is permitted if the plaintiff is a public figure. – A plea of good faith is permitted by the courts in circumstances where the issues at stake concern matters of public interest. A defendant may be acquitted on that basis if the court is satisfied that the defendant has carried out at least a basic verification of the source of the information on which the defamatory statement is based.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “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” This philosophy is usually accompanied by legislation ensuring various degrees of freedom of scientific research (known as scientific freedom), publishing, press and printing the depth to which these laws are entrenched in a country’s legal system can go as far down as its constitution.
The concept of freedom of speech is often covered by the same laws as freedom of the press, thereby giving equal treatment to spoken and published expression.