07/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Redefining the Press In An Election Year

Lawyer Gary Williams delivered a media law primer entitled Staying Out of Trouble at a Citizen Journalism Academy conference hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists at Loyola Law School in downtown Los Angeles at the end of June. Williams, Professor of Law at Loyola and former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Southern California, spoke about the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the significance of the declaration that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." Williams explained that a free press allows information to flow freely in society and enables people to make educated political decisions about government. The court protects freedom of the press to encourage self-fulfillment and maintain public safety.

"If people are able to express what they have to say and talk about how they feel they are less likely to engage in other kinds of activity that are destructive such as revolution," Williams said.

Not all speech, however, falls under the First Amendment. For example, false statements and speech involving criminal conduct are unprotected. Yet the law treats false political speech differently.

"The court has said that in political discourse where people are talking about candidates and issues that even though the Constitution does not protect false speech a certain amount of it is to be expected and has to be allowed so that the political speech will continue. If you allow government to interfere in that kind of speech you would "chill" speech and make people afraid," he said.

Freedom of political speech and the constitutional prohibition against chilling speech are crucial ideas, especially in this election campaign as the concept of the press and what constitutes news are continually being challenged and redefined. Williams gave the following example of protected speech:

Gary Williams, in a political debate, discouraged people from voting for the mayor of Los Angeles because he is having an affair. If Gary Williams can be sued for saying that the mayor is a player then Gary Williams will be intimidated from talking about other kinds of issues. If the mayor could sue me for defamation he could chill my speech.

Williams told the audience that Government could not stop people in advance from publishing whatever they want. People who take exception to the thoughts and ideas of others are "limited to a remedy that exists after publication" which is consistent with the declaration in the First Amendment that "congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...," he said. Under the First Amendment, the press is an entity with rights. For example, according to the Supreme Court, the press is not required to publish a politician's response to criticism.

"The federal government and the state government can't tell you what to put in a newspaper. You can't tell a broadcaster what to publish," Williams said.

The popularity of online news sources and conversational blogs redefine the role of the reader. No longer passive recipients of information developed by the corporate media, readers have become active participants in a national conversation that often determines which stories are newsworthy and the direction news reports take.

In 1960, A.J. Liebling wrote "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Today, arguably, freedom of the press is guaranteed to those with access to a half-decent connection to the Internet, a service provided by most public libraries in American cities. The declaration that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press..." is vital to the conversation that is developing in the online press this election year.