Freedom for the Press as an Industry, or For the Press as a Technology? From the Framing to Today
“[T]he freedom . . . of the press” specially protects the press as an industry, which is to say newspapers, television stations, and the like—so have argued some judges and scholars, such as the Citizens United v. FEC dissenters and Justices Stewart, and Douglas. This argument is made in many contexts: election-related speech, libel law, the journalist’s privilege, access to government property, and more. Some lower courts have indeed concluded that some First Amendment constitutional protections apply only to the institutional press, and not to book authors, political advertisers, writers of letters to the editor, professors who post material on their websites, or people who are interviewed by newspaper reporters.
Sometimes, this argument is used to support weaker protection for non-institutional-press speakers than is already given to institutional-press speakers. At other times, it is used to support greater protection for institutional-press speakers than they already get. The argument in the latter set of cases is that the greater protection can be limited to institutional-press speakers, and so will undermine rival government interests less than if the greater protection were extended to all speakers.
But other judges and scholars—including the Citizens United majority and Justice Brennan—have argued that the “freedom . . . of the press” does not protect the press-as-industry, but rather protects everyone’s use of the printing press (and its modern equivalents) as a technology. People or organizations who occasionally rent the technology, for instance by buying newspaper space, broadcast time, or the services of a printing company, are just as protected as newspaper publishers or broadcasters.
Under this approach, the First Amendment rights of the institutional press and of other speakers rise and fall together. Sometimes, this approach is used to support protection for non-institutional-press speakers and to resist calls for lowering that protection below the level offered to institutional-press speakers. At other times, it is used to rebut demands for greater protection: Extending such protection to all speakers, the argument goes, would excessively undermine rival government interests—yet allowing such protection only for the institutional press would improperly give the institutional press special rights.