What Does "Freedom of the Press" Really Mean?

I was watching Pawn Stars recently when I got an unexpected insight into my own profession. You hear the phrase “freedom of the press,” and a certain image comes to mind: the classic reporter, asking the hard questions of authority, scribbling in a notebook, a card with the word “press” tucked in his fedora’s hatband.

“Press” and “journalism” have been synonymous for so long we now think they are actual synonyms, that “press” only and always refers to the network of professionals who record and transmit the news, whether through print, TV or radio. Journalists certainly mean this when they refer to themselves as “the press,” that great institution singled about in the Bill of Rights for special protection from government meddling.

In a flash, Pawn Stars reminded me that “the press” was a machine long before it was a career choice. If you haven’t seen it, Pawn Stars is a reality show set in a Las Vegas pawn shop; every episode, people come with their old junk to find out if it’s worth anything. A woman brought in a small, antique printing press. The shop owner said this particular old press was too beat up to have any value. In an offhanded way, he mentioned, “Governments used to ban people from owning these.”

Ah ha! Freedom of the press! The phrase could just as easily have been "freedom of the quill" if James Madison had preceded Johannes Gutenberg. The authors of the First Amendment certainly had examples, in their own time, of authoritarian governments that limited not journalism, or newsgathering or editorials, per se, but the private ownership of printing presses themselves.

Read the section on Russian censorship here for an example. It notes, “Catherine II (r. 1762 – 1796) finally made private ownership and use of printing presses legal in 1783.” Catherine was pretty enlightened. The Soviet government that later emerged in Russia was not so kind to citizens who wanted to own presses. Have you heard the term “samizdat?” It’s fallen out of currency since the Cold War ended, but the word describes, “The secret publication and distribution of government-banned literature in the former Soviet Union [or] the literature produced by this system [or] an underground press.”

Translate the word itself from Russian to English and it basically means “self-publishing.” Bad things happened to Soviet citizens who dared to self-publish. Google Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, you’ll see.

New publishing technology has always disrupted the establishment, and that’s just as true to today. Now, ironically, the establishment includes “the press,” as in, the clique of professionals who were accustomed to privately owning the biggest press in town, or the biggest transmitter. Everyone can publish his or her thoughts to the world now, and some people in “the press” hate that.

Example: Hawaii’s shield law, passed in 2008, extends legal protection to journalists so that they cannot be compelled to reveal their sources in court. I attended meetings of journalists as this bill was drafted and there was a lot of discussion about bloggers and whether they deserved this same protection. As this description makes clear, the final law made bloggers second-class citizens.

This irritated me then, and it still does. State after state have passed shield laws, all of which, in part, seek to define what the real “press” is—and it is definitely not you and your blog!

Wrong, and frustratingly self-serving. The press is not just a newspaper, magazine or TV station. The press is a machine, an amplifier, any device that can help the smallest citizen roar as loudly as their government. This is why Russia banned mechanical presses, why China today isolates and spies on its citizens on the Internet. The quill, the press, the processor, it’s all the same—the dictators’ biggest nightmare.

UPDATE 5/21: Oh good grief, the dictators are at it again. According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, China has banned photocopiers in Tibet, lest someone mass produce protests against China’s rule there. Photocopiers!