Awakening the Press Clause


The Free Press Clause enjoys less practical significance than almost any other constitutional provision. While recognizing the structural and expressive importance of a free press, the U.S. Supreme Court does not explicitly recognize any right or protection as emanating solely from the Press Clause. Recently in the Court’s Citizens United decision, Justices Stevens and Scalia reignited the thirty-year- old debate over whether the Press Clause has any function separate from the Speech Clause.

The primary roadblock to recognizing independent meaning in the Press Clause is the definitional problem—who or what is the “press” in the First Amendment? Others have attempted to define the press, but the ubiquitous instinct toward constitutional overprotection tends to invite overly broad definitions that include potentially everyone. Proponents of these overinclusive definitions attempt to transfer our constitutionally overprotective approach from the Speech Clause to the Press Clause. The net result has been, ironically, fewer constitutional press rights rather than more.

This Article endeavors to break that cycle by arguing that the way to give long-overdue meaning to this important piece of constitutional text is to embrace press exceptionalism and a narrow definition of the press. By adopting an overly protective approach to the Press Clause, we have been sucked into a constitutional feedback loop: An expansive definition of the press means virtually complete overlap between press and speech and thus no meaningful way to interpret the Press Clause. Awakening the Press Clause, therefore, requires embracing a definition of the press that is sufficiently narrow. This Article furthermore submits that the definitional problem is manageable because line-drawing perfectionism is not required thanks to the fallback protections of the Speech Clause.

About the Author

Assistant Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law.

By uclalaw