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Press Censorship in the United States

A Timeline History

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The United States has long struggled with the idea of a free press—a struggle that is far from over. Where the government has failed to live up to its ideals, it has often attempted to cover up its mistakes through censorship.

1735

When New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger went on trial on criminal libel charges for criticizing New York governor William Cosby, the great Scottish-American lawyer Andrew Hamilton came to his defense—admitting that Zenger had written the offending editorials, but arguing that, because they were true, they could not constitute criminal libel. "By your verdict," he told the jury, "you will have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our descendants, and our neighbors, the liberty both of exposing and opposing tyrannical power by speaking and writing truth." The jury returned a verdict of not guilty—and the fundamental role of the press, as an institution whose legitimacy could be directly traced to its ability and willingness to speak truth to power, was established.

1798

In an attempt to silence his political critics, John Adams endorses an anti-sedition provision in the Alien and Sedition Acts:
[I]f any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the governments of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act … shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law failed as a political strategy—Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in the 1800 elections—and expired two years later.

1823

Utah passes a criminal libel law allowing journalists to be prosecuted by public officials.

1863

Union general Ambrose Burnside suppresses publication of the pro-slavery Chicago Times due to its criticism of the Lincoln administration. The judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Thomas Drummond, blocks Burnside's order. Burnside ignores Drummond's ruling and shuts down the press anyway. Drummond organizes a massive protest against Burnside with these words:
All good and loyal citizens of Chicago, who favor free speech and freedom of the Press, as guaranteed to us by the Constitution we love and uphold, are invited to assemble in mass meeting in front of the Chicago Times office, on Wednesday evening, June 3 at 8 o'clock, to take counsel together in regard to the recent infamous and tyrannical order of Maj.-Gen. AMBROSE.E. BURNSIDE, suppressing newspapers always Democratic, and consequently, always loyal.
The Illinois House of Representatives also voted 47-13 to condemn Burnside's actions, passing this resolution:
That in view of the monstrous consequences which must inevitably flow from such action, if justified by the General Government, we respectfully yet firmly request the withdrawal of the order in question, and the disavowal thereof by those in power, as the only course which can be pursued to reassure our people that constitutional freedom, so dear to their hearts, has not ceased to be. The attention of the Government is called to this infringement of popular rights, and the invasion of the sovereignty of the State of Illinois.
When it became clear that Burnside had no intention of respecting the First Amendment, President Abraham Lincoln revoked his order and allowed the Chicago Times to resume publication.

1918

Congress passes the Sedition Act of 1918, criminalizing the publication of work critical of the government. Although the primary targets of the legislation were left-wing antiwar activists, not journalists, it had a chilling effect on press coverage of World War I.

1942

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoints AP Washington bureau chief Byron Price as head of the U.S. Office of Censorship, where he establishes a Voluntary Censorship Code and attempts to strike a balance between national security and press freedom. He holds the distinction of being the only person to have received a Pulitzer Prize for censorship—a testimony to his popularity with the press.
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