All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1965

Freedom of the Press

 Dr. Russell, economist, is a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Edu­cation.

To the best of my knowledge, freedom of the press (the printed word) is complete in the United States today. That is, anyone can still write whatever he pleases and (subject to our reasonable libel laws) the police will protect both him and his manuscript. But all too many of us confuse “free­dom to write” with “what is printed.” Both my liberal and con­servative friends are equally guilty of this disservice to freedom. If they disagree with what is printed in the newspapers, they are often prone to complain that freedom of the press doesn’t exist. That at­titude demonstrates a total mis­understanding of the meaning of freedom of the press.

For example, it so happens that I am in general disagreement with the editorial viewpoints expressed by more than 90 per cent of the large daily newspapers in our country. But that fact has nothing whatever to do with the existence of freedom of the press. The only issue of consequence is whether or not the owners and editors of the newspapers are printing what they themselves choose to print—and for any good or bad reason that pleases them. If any publisher is ever compelled to print view­points that do not appeal to him personally, freedom of the press will be finished.

There is, of course, only one source from which that compul­sion could come—government. Yet I have heard many of my teaching colleagues seriously propose the idea that newspapers should be compelled to print all viewpoints or, worse yet, that the government should establish “opposition news­papers” as a “public service.” Both proposals are, of course, the reverse of freedom of the press. The only valid test of freedom of the press is this: Can you write anything you please, pay to have it printed, and send it through the mails at your own expense without police interference? If so, freedom of the press is complete. If not, there is no freedom of the press. The fact that you may not have the large amount of capital that is today required to establish a daily newspaper is in no way related to this issue.