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Freedom of the Press - The Origins Of Free Press Concerns

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The printing of thoughts and ideas began thousands of years ago with the carving of designs into wet clay. Though paper was invented in China in the twelfth century, modern printing did not begin until about 500 years ago. In response to the Renaissance interest in learning, German Johannes Guttenberg pioneered the use of movable type and began the printing of books. However, even before there was a press and printing, rulers and church leaders commonly restricted the writing and distribution of certain material. Written by hand, books considered contrary to church teachings or a threat to social order were banned or burned.

Shortly after the introduction of printing in the fifteenth century, early printers were required to obtain a license from the government or a religious group to publish material. By the mid sixteenth century, anyone in England found with unapproved books critical of the government could face execution. In 1585 Queen Elizabeth created new regulations concerning the printing of books. Printing could only occur at presses in Oxford, Cambridge, and London and all materials to be printed required approval beforehand by the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of London. Imprisonment and destruction of the printing equipment was punishment for any violations. English control of the press continued into the seventeenth century as part of common law recognizing the right of government to impose criminal penalties on those maliciously criticizing the government, known as the "sedition libel doctrine." By the mid-seventeenth century, arguments against licensing mounted and by 1700 freedom from censorship grew as a recognized natural right, free of prior restraints but not absolute freedom from punishment after publication.

Printing was introduced in the American colonies in 1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rapidly spread but under strict controls. In 1735, the trial of colonist newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger, charged with criticizing the British government, attracted widespread attention. By 1765, over 30 newspapers were published in the colonies. After conclusion of war with France in 1763, Britain decided to tighten its control on the colonies and station troops in America. To finance the expense, the British Parliament in 1765 passed the Stamp Act placing a tax on newspapers. The act, the first of several unpopular tax measures imposed by Britain in the decade between 1765 and 1775, helped forge colonial opposition to British rule and directly led to the Revolutionary War.

The framers of the Constitution viewed freedom of press as a key means of ensuring participatory democracy. Freedom of speech and religion would become meaningless without the freedom to publish such thoughts. Thus, the right to publish freely served as a protection of other constitutional freedoms, a watchdog over threats to the other rights. The Constitution was written to express that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom...of the press." However, few details were provided about how to apply the press clause. It had been generally accepted that any form of government censorship, or prior restraint, was prohibited. Punishment of published material, such as seditious libel, was allowed with recognition that to preserve peace and order, abuses by people of their freedom must be addressed in some manner.

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