The First Amendment, the Freedom of the Press and you



"Government shall make no law (…) abridging the freedom of speech or of the press". It is the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights from 1791 that manifests this fundamental freedom for the United States States of America - by that time a young democracy aged 15 years.

As you may know a freedom as such never comes for free. In many parts of the world our ancestors had to fight for this freedom at some time. In far too many countries the people still have to fight for it. Often they pay the highest price you can imagine. They pay with their lives. And even if other countries have already achieved this fundamental freedom, you can never be sure that it is going to last forever. Freedom is not for free. There is a price we have to pay. At least pay some attention.


When you are in Washington D.C., visit the Newseum. This amazing piece of architecture offers a giant variety of Exhibitions and Stories about the importance of free speech and a free press. A giant wall on the third floor shows you which parts of your world do have a free press and which parts do not.

You will recognize the traffic light analogy. Take a closer look at the map: If your country is colored in green go ahead and feel free to write about everything you want! Nothing to be worried about. If your country is orange, you should better watch out. It is not unlikely that you could get into trouble when you work as journalist. And you never know in which color it might have turned when the map is updated once a year. If your country is colored red, you should better think about your topic - or about your job. You might end up in jail because somebody very powerful in your country dislikes your latest article, your blog post or your youtube video.

 But can you really group all the countries of the world into these three colors? The Reporters without Borders go a little further. Their map shows the world in five colors. The NGO monitors where the freedom of press is under threat. In their annual report on the freedom of press worldwide you will find the world press freedom index, a constantly updated ranking of all countries. And you will immediately see that some green countries at the Newseum are not as green as they seem.

Have a closer look at the World Press Freedom Index and check out the United States. In many statistics this country is on top. But not in this one. Surprisingly you will have to scroll down a little bit. The US is ranked on position 49. It has fallen 14 points since 2013. The First Amendment that cannot be revoked by any law. But nevertheless you can get into trouble when you try to do your work as a journalist in the United States. Like Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reillyin Ferguson in August 2014. They were reporting on the shooting of a young African American named Michael Brown by a white police officer and the following riots. According to the Reporters Committee for the freedom of press (RFCP) Lowery and Reilly were in a Fast Food restaurant when police officers came into the building to clear the area:

"They were not even involved in a contentious or dangerous atmosphere. They were instead sitting in a McDonald’s, recharging their phones. The journalists were ordered to leave a public restaurant, and while they were leaving, they asked questions and videotaped the officers. This is perfectly lawful and appropriate behavior, does not justify the officers’ decision to arrest them for 'disobeying' an order" (RCFP Letter to St.Louis County).

The Reporters without borders can give you a deeper insight on what happened in Ferguson. According to the RSF at least 15 reporters were arrested during the Ferguson protests in 2014. 

„The United States, The country of the First Amendment, cannot arrow to keep journalists from reporting on major civil rights issues developing across the country. The ability of reporters to freely cover protests in response to rising tension between police and minority communities is paramount in a democratic society and should not be hindered bey violent attacks or arbitrary arrests“, affirms Delphine Halgand, US Director of Reporters without Borders.

And what happened to the guys in the Fast Food restaurant? They were shortly taken to the Police Station and then released. So far so good? No.

Believe it or not - St. Louis County has recently filed a charge againgt Washington Post Reporter Wesley Lowery for trespassing and interfering with a police officer.

On August 18th 2015 the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 38 news outlets and media organizations sent a protest letter to St. Louis County officials:

"The fact that these journalists were kept from doing their jobs was troublesome enough. But the fact that your office – after having had time to reflect on police actions for a full year – has chosen to pursue criminal prosecution now is astonishing."

Marty Baron, Washington Post's executive editor, stated in a press release of the Reporters without Borders that „charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageuous. You’d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority. This latest action represents contemptible overreaching by prosecutors who seem to have no regard for the role of journalists seeking to cover a major story and following normal practice“. (Read the full press release of Reporters without Borders here).

You remember the World map in the Newseum? Have another look at it now and remember: journalists from green countries have to fight for this freedom, too.

Freedom never comes for free. It has its price. Do not take it for granted. Pay attention! Take care. And if necaressy - fight for it. That is the only way to make it stay.