Only the government is restrained by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has broadened the definitions of "speech" and "press" to include not just talking, writing, and printing, but also broadcasting, utilizing the Internet, and other means of expression. These new forms of communication are referred to as "media."
The First Amendment protects both media that are considered "traditional" (newspapers, magazines, radio, television), as well as newer forms of media such as web sites, social networking, and video games. Although most media rely on newspapers for inspiration, not all newspaper articles qualify as free speech under the First Amendment. Some content is prohibited by law, such as threats or defamation. Other material may be prohibited by an institutional policy. For example, a newspaper may have a policy against publishing personal information about its readers.
All media are protected by the First Amendment because we as a society need freedom of expression to thrive. Without this protection, there would be no discussion of politics or news stories regarding social issues, and many existing forms of media would not exist.
In addition to protecting what is said, the First Amendment also protects the way things are said.
The First Amendment and the Internet The seemingly straightforward provision of the First Amendment that "Congress shall enact no law... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press" becomes highly difficult when applied to electronic media. In fact, there are two conflicting lines of cases that have developed around the issue of free expression on the Internet.
One line of cases holds that online content is subject to greater government regulation because it can be accessed by a global audience. This means that the government has an interest in limiting harmful content that could impact young people or other sensitive groups. Enforcing this rule makes sense since limiting illegal activity will help keep children safe and prevent harm to others. Websites also have an interest in ensuring their existence is not threatened by legal action taken against them for posting objectionable material. So, the first step in addressing illegal content on websites is for courts to determine whether legislation exists that would prohibit the same thing offline. If so, then the site has nothing to worry about; if not, then it's free to post whatever it wants.
The second line of cases holds that the nature of information posted online makes it impossible for governments to restrict. Since censorship is impractical and blocking certain sites would limit access to important information, judges have found ways around these problems by applying standards similar to those used for newspapers.
The First Amendment's protections do not exist to protect the press. Rather, the press exists to aid in the protection of such liberties. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of a free press in our democracy and they included specific guarantees within the Bill of Rights to ensure that it would not be silenced.
Currently, only five countries have censorship boards that grant licenses for journalists to expose government corruption. In these countries, the average score on the Freedom House press freedom index is 7.9 out of 10, while the average worldwide score is just 3.3 out of 10.
In contrast, the United States has a 100 percent free press, which means that all forms of media are protected by law from government interference. Additionally, there are no censorship boards here that can deny licenses because they disagree with what reporters write or publish.
Furthermore, American journalists are given some of the strongest anti-harassment laws in the world. These laws can hold journalists liable for libel if their reports are found to be false and they fail to correct them. Also, under federal law, journalists cannot be held criminally responsible for reporting crimes they witness first-hand.
Finally, journalists in America have absolute immunity from being sued for their work.