The events in Ferguson drew significant attention to the role of a free press in a democracy. In the days after the shooting of Michael Brown, a number of journalists were detained, searched, and arrested as they attempted to cover the story, while many others reported being harassed, questioned, and threatened by police as well as by protestors and community members. Many journalists and civil-liberties advocates highlighted these occurrences to make the point that preventing members of the press from doing their job puts democracy at risk.
These occurrences also highlight a broader issue: the fact that few Americans know all five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment, beyond freedom of speech (which was identified by 57% of those surveyed). In the 2015 State of the First Amendment survey sponsored by the Newseum Institute, just 10% of Americans who were asked to name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment mentioned freedom of the press, down from 14% in 2014. The only freedom that ranked lower was the right to petition the government, at 2%.
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.
The First Amendment’s connection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press is significant. Free speech and a free press together allow people to obtain information from a wide range of sources that are not dictated or restricted by the government, so that they can make decisions, develop opinions, and communicate their views to the government (by voting, assembling, protesting, sharing ideas, etc.). Together, free speech and a free press are essential to the public’s ability to become informed and to actively participate in a democracy.