The New Student's Reference Work/Press, Freedom of the
Press, Free′dom of the, is the right of every citizen to print whatever he chooses. The right, however, does not prevent his being amenable to justice for abuse of this liberty. In the early history of the press no such right was recognized, but the Roman Catholic church first originated censorship of the press. In 1515 that church formally decreed that no publication should be issued from any place over which it had jurisdiction without the written sanction of the bishop of the diocese. This policy of censorship was soon taken up by the civil authorities of the various states in continental Europe, and until very recent times it was an established rule that a free press was incompatible with an absolute government. While no censorship now exists in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden or Switzerland, the press-laws in some of these countries are very rigid. In Spain, Germany and France the right is claimed and exercised of summarily suppressing publications deemed obnoxious to public peace and security. In France there is no constitutional guarantee in behalf of the freedom of the press. The constitutions of Switzerland and Prussia contain such guarantee, but empower the legislatures to place restrictions, which in some cases are very severe. In Russia the censorship of the press is still severe and arbitrary. In England, after a long and severe struggle, almost complete freedom of the press now prevails. Actual censorship was discontinued in 1694, but real freedom did not come for a century later. At present the only restriction upon the English press, except in cases of libelous matter, is the common-law rule that the publication of anything against the constitution of the country or the established system of government is an indictable offense. The American colonies suffered with the mother-country, but after their overthrowing English authority the principle of freedom of the press was proclaimed, and incorporated in the first state constitutions; a rule which all succeeding states without exception have followed. This freedom of course carries with it a degree of responsibility for any abuse of such liberty, but this responsibility has not rested heavily on newspaper men. The great freedom with which newspapers criticise and often ridicule government officials, especially by means of pictures and cartoons, has sometimes led to something of a reaction in favor of more stringent libel laws. The constitution of the United States prohibits Congress from passing any law abridging the freedom of the press, yet there is one instance of such legislation.