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Freedom of the Press

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In the past few days, I've seen two things that seem to indicate that people are unclear about freedom of the press. The first was an ad for exhibit of "censored" comics (that is, ones which a publisher has decided to not run). The comics shown were mostly anti-war, anti-US, or anti-bush ones by people like Tom Tomorrow (who can draw) or Ted Rall (who can't).

The second was on the O'Reilly Factor, a case in which a gay activist called Psychology Today to task for running an ad for a book claiming that gays can be "cured". (As an aside, I think that this is mostly bunk.) O'Reilly and the book's author both called this censorship.

I think that the problem here is that people are confusing censorship with a publisher's editorial discretion. The first amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The only relevant freedoms here are those of speech and of the press. The freedom of speech issue is a non-starter, at least in today's world. A publisher's refusal to publish an author's words does not abridge the author's ability to write those words. The author is free to try to get published in an alternative forum, or to self publish (as I am doing with this blog, although I never tried to get published by someone else).

Now, if the government is the one restricting publication, then the rules change. But that's not the case in either situation.

Freedom of the press speaks to the right of anyone to publish and disseminate information (I'd imagine that this extends to related things like the ability to sell what one publishes). It does not guarantee people the right to be published. (This analysis applies to non-scarce media like the web, newspapers, or magazines, where anyone can start a new publication. For something like broadcast television, regulated by the government, the rules can and should be different.)

This is why I support the activist and oppose the artists on this one. Barring the existence of contracts stating otherwise, publishers should be able to choose what they publish. Editorial control is and should not be considered censorship.

(I am not a lawyer.)

- Tom | permalink | changelog | Last updated: 2002-12-05 00:11

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