Right/Freedom of the Press/Philosophical Origins

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Freedom of the Press

What have religious and philosophical traditions contributed to our understanding of this right?


Benthamite Utilitarianism 🖉 edit

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an English philosopher whose work would prove foundational to the development of modern liberalism, as both a moral and a political vision. Bentham’s unique brand of liberalism is most strongly associated with his guiding principle of utilitarianism: that what is best is what brings the most utility to the greatest number of people. Despite what might today be recognized as problematic implications of an absolute adherence to this principle, Bentham’s utilitarianism made him a strong advocate of social and political freedoms, under the reasoning that these freedoms are a net good to society.

Bentham defines his utilitarian philosophy in his 1781 tract An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. By his central concept of utility, he means “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing), or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered” (Bentham 1781, 14-15). Notably, he insists that utility can only accrue to the individual: “The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost. … The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting, as it were, its members. The interest of the community then is, what is it? —the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it” (Bentham 1781, 15). Therefore, a good government is one that acts in the ultimate interests of its individual constituents, and not for some vague notion of the good of the community or the state.

Presaging his protege John Stuart Mill, Bentham seeks to defend press freedom through the lens of his utilitarian ideal. Bentham identifies an unfettered press as the essential guarantor against what he terms misrule, by ensuring protection against government oppression and the accountability of leaders to the people they represent. This is perhaps best seen in his commentary on the suppression of liberal movements in Spain, and by extension in his native England as well. Referring to a report of a Madrid newspaper editor being prosecuted for his work, Bentham declares that “whatsoever evil can ever result from this liberty [of the press], is everywhere, and at all times, greatly outweighed by the good” (Bentham 1820). This is because the liberty of the press “operates as a check upon the conduct of the ruling few; and in that character constitutes a controlling power, indispensably necessary to the maintenance of good government” (Bentham 1820). To Bentham, the benefits of good government are “plainly infinite” (Bentham 1820).

Bentham does not further elaborate on these benefits in his letter on the situation in Spain, but elsewhere in his work he consistently identifies good governance with participatory democracy, with the ability of the people to impact their government, and consequently with freedom in the broadest sense. For Bentham, “in the late stages of his long career nothing was more important to ‘good politics’ than the influence of public opinion on those with political power” (Cutler 1999, 322). He even wrote of an (allegorical) Public Opinion Tribunal that would issue “judgments” of politicians, to ensure that politics takes the people’s unfiltered and all-inclusive sentiments into account: “No one can know her interests better than herself. Thus, if a utilitarian public policy is to emerge from an aggregation of those interests, the constitution should provide the institutions that permit all persons to communicate their interests to government equally” (Cutler 1999, 324). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bentham places such high value on government by and for the people, that he insists that the government has a duty to be responsive to the people even when public opinion is misguided. He was not naïve; to him, “[self-determination] does not require certainty in [the people’s] judgments of prospective utility … The institutions of government, therefore, ought to allow the public to react to what their government is doing, constantly steering closer and closer to providing for their interests” (Cutler 1999, 324).

When it comes to the purported harms of a free press, Bentham points out that prosecutions for criticizing the government are traditionally justified as a response to an insult to the honor of the state or its functionaries, and that this is regarded as a threat to the integrity of the state (Bentham 1820). Indeed, rulers have historically tended to punish defamation of the government or its representatives more harshly than defamation of private individuals, and to treat aspersions cast on the government as a whole or on a higher ranked official as more serious than those cast on a lower ranked official. Bentham considers this nonsensical: he argues that the harms to a discrete number of high-profile individuals who may find themselves maligned are far eclipsed by the much greater benefits that a free press brings to a much wider range of people. He even notes that public figures who find themselves unfairly targeted by the press have a built-in remedy commensurate with the rank of their position, since their status affords them distinct advantages in rebutting any allegations, which a private person does not have (Bentham 1820).

Moreover, far from handicapping the function of the state by impugning its reputation, a free press actually does the opposite. For a real world illustration of his reasoning, Bentham points to the United States, where the freedom of journalists to speak against the government is not only constitutionally protected but considered inalienable from public life, but which he nevertheless considers better governed than even his own country; he even calls the young nation the only country that truly has good governance. Thus, Bentham elucidates a utilitarian account of freedom of the press: the cumulative benefit to individuals is far greater than the cumulative harm. Put another way, in an ideal government where one can feel assured that the laws are just, a good citizen’s aim should be “to obey punctually; to censure freely” (Schofield 2019, 43).

Bentham does recognize narrow circumstances where the press can be censured for defamation, but he holds that this punishment should be applied in the reverse of how it has typically been: defamation of a private person should be treated as more severe than defamation of a state official. In fact, Bentham lays out a standard of proof for defamation of a public figure that is remarkably similar to the actual malice standard laid out by the US Supreme Court more than a century later: namely, the statement in question must be not just untrue but “the result of willful mendacity, accompanied with the consciousness of its falsity, or else with culpable rashness” (Schofield 2019, 45). Presumably, he would likewise support the modern jurisprudence that mere negligence of the falsity of a statement is sufficient proof in the case of a non-public figure.

Benthamite utilitarianism, it must be said, does not necessarily anticipate all the problems with today’s mass media and its role in guiding the reins of government. For one thing, Bentham does not consider that the press does not just report public opinion but shapes it (often quite intentionally); he also does not ask how public policy should incorporate the views of experts when they conflict with the public mood, or how it should protect the right of minority views to also be heard and compete for influence. Nonetheless, Bentham’s work offers a straightforward and persuasive account of the value of a press free from state interference, giving a highly compelling defense of this fundamental human right at a time of conservative retrenchment and reaction throughout Europe.


Bentham, Jeremy. 1781. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Kitchener, Ontario, Canada: Batoche Books Limited, 2000.

Bentham, Jeremy. October 7, 1820. “To the Spanish People: Letter I.” Classical Utilitarianism Website, University of Texas, September 24, 2003, https://www.laits.utexas.edu/poltheory/bentham/bsp/bsp.l01.html

Cutler, Fred. “Jeremy Bentham and the Public Opinion Tribunal.” Public Opinion Quarterly, 63, no. 3 (1999): 321-346, https://academic.oup.com/poq/article-abstract/63/3/321/1902496?redirectedFrom=fulltext#no-access-message

Schofield, Philip. “Jeremy Bentham on Freedom of the Press, Public Opinion, and Good Government.” Scandinavica, 58, no. 2 (2019): 39-57, https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10105424/1/13223-jeremy-bentham-on-freedom-of-the-press-public-opinion-and-good-government.pdf

Scottish Enlightenment 🖉 edit

Scholarly discourse on the impacts of a free press was one major contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment. The influential ideas of David Hume and Francis Hutcheson, among others, helped shape our understanding of the role of the press in politics and society. The preeminent scholars of 18th century Scotland were generally supportive of free and protected press for the sake of facilitating public discourse and maintaining a standard of public accountability for government officials and their conduct.

David Hume’s essay Of the Liberty of the Press remains one of the period’s most important works of advocacy for a free, uncensored press. Hume bases his argument in concerns about maintaining societal function and avoiding societal breakdown. In explaining the function of the press in the public arena Hume writes:

The spirit of the people must frequently be roused in order to curb the ambition of the court, and the dread of rousing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom and everyone be animated to its defense.

Put simply, Hume asserts that a free press helps protect against threats to liberty. When the public has open information about the conduct of their officials, citizens are better equipped to question what political behaviors actually seek to improve society. A free press therefore introduces new incentives for political behavior, and guards against infringements on freedom otherwise unknown to the public.

A 2018 essay by Eckhart Hellmuth provides useful context for Hume’s work on press freedoms. The first prime minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole, instituted strict policies for publication from 1722 to 1725. According to Hellmuth, “Walpole did not limit himself to encouraging journalism that supported his policies, but went further and also tried to obstruct the opposition press” (p.106). Hume therefore developed his ideas in a political context “Where there was always a danger of the authorities exceeding their power, where permanent vigilance was required, [and] it made sense to use the press as a vehicle to balance power within the state, and this is exactly what Hume did” (Ibid., p.179). The British politics of Hume’s day exemplify the need for a free press as a check on centralized authority. However, the press serves another function within civil society at a more individual level.

The second benefit of a free press, according to Hume, is that it helps prevent certain parts of society from becoming radicalized against their government. By facilitating open discourse about political affairs, the press provides a nonviolent opportunity for the public to air their grievances. “For Hume, consumption of the printed word was a rational act with a tempering effect. ‘A man’, he wrote, ‘reads a book or pamphlet alone and coolly. There is none present from whom he can catch the passion by contagion’” (Ibid., p.179). Here, Hume posits that a free press reduces the chances that citizens will be susceptible to the mob mentality and radicalization. This speaks to the broader theory that states who acknowledge political dissent experience less turmoil and violence than those who isolate it.

Professor of political philosophy Marc Hanvelt has focused much of his research on Hume’s views on politeness, public discourse, and the press. He agrees with Hellmuth’s points about the press tempering public sentiments in calling it “a forum for the opposition of interests (...) by deflating factional bigotry” (2012, p.627). Hanvelt also provides his analysis of Hume’s Of the Liberty of the Press, paying close attention to the differences between the original and edited versions. The essay’s original conclusion declares a more explicit support for a free press: “Through the guarantee of liberty of the press, Hume argues, 'it is to be hope, that men, being every day more accustomed to the free discussion of public affairs, will improve in the judgment of them, and be with greater difficulty seduced by every idle rumour and popular clamour’” (Ibid., p.629). The omission of this sentence from Hume’s final version does not indicate a backtracking on his belief in a free press. Instead, the edit was made in an effort to “[bring] the essay into line with his philosophically-grounded objection to unbounded liberty” (Ibid., p.630). The introduction of a free press has many benefits, but it also exposes a society to the dangers of irresponsible journalism. Hume sought to acknowledge the dangers of both extremes and to add subtly to his support for press freedoms. In Hanvelt’s view, Hume still upholds the argument that an uncensored press benefits public discourse.

While David Hume may have written the most direct commentary on the freedom of the press, he was not the only Scottish Enlightenment thinker who made contributions in that area. Francis Hutcheson is known for his work on moral philosophy, yet his theories can be applied in several ways to freedom of information and the press. A blog by the Centre for Privacy Studies in Denmark parsed the connections between morality, privacy, and modern press freedoms. According to Hutcheson, morality is dictated by what is happening around us, therefore we must be informed about the conduct or behavior of others in order to uphold common moral standards. The piece explains Hutcheson’s views on privacy by saying: “Hutcheson implies that following what is ‘natural’ or ‘nature’ is a way to achieve happiness, or else by being ‘virtuous’. (...) One could here infer, that hiding shameful vices is unnatural; so, in this sense, privacy is unnatural” (Moral Philosophy and Privacy 2020). This would be especially true with respect to the vices of government officials, which to some extent have an impact on all of society. Hutcheson also supports the use of speech in line with the common interest, suggesting that the press should be granted sufficient liberties as a medium of public speech. Furthermore, Hutcheson’s moral paradigm favors transparency, which remains one of the primary goals of a free press. The blog post paraphrases: “We must use speech with truth and fidelity in conversations otherwise we lose this advantage of social life (...) Hutcheson insists particularly on the fact that maintaining veracity in all our conversation is important to society” (Moral Philosophy and Privacy 2020). Despite not addressing the press directly, the moral philosophy of Francis Hutcheson contains theories on privacy, transparency, and truth that offer relevant insights on press freedoms.


Hanvelt, Marc. 2012. “Politeness, A Plurality of Interests and the Public Realm: Hume on the Liberty of the Press.” History of Political Thought 33 (4): 627–46.

Hellmuth, Eckhart. 2018. “Towards Hume – The Discourse on the Liberty of the Press in the Age of Walpole.” History of European Ideas 44 (2): 159–81.

Hume, David. “Of the Liberty of the Press.” In Essays: moral, political, and literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

“Hutcheson’s Moral Philosophy and Privacy.” 2020. Centre for Privacy Studies. April 16, 2020. https://privacy.hypotheses.org/tag/francis-hutcheson.

Transcendentalism 🖉 edit

Transcendentalism and Freedom of the Press

To the transcendentalists, the matters of self-cultivation and social change were integral to the flourishing of the soul. Part and parcel of this process of becoming a self that is in harmony with natural divinity and a unity with itself is the discovery and articulation of truth as it is experienced by the individual. Transcendentalists engaged in lectures, discussions, and publication of ideas in intellectual circles throughout New England. The focus on issues of politics, religion, and the rights of human beings came into the public sphere through journals, newspapers, and other periodicals that published the works of various transcendentalist thinkers. (Andrews).

A famous example, though almost entirely inconsequential at the time, of transcendentalist use of free expression was Henry David Thoreau’s tax evasion. Thoreau had stopped paying his taxes in 1842 as a means of protesting slavery and the looming conflict of the Mexican-American War. When the war had actually broken out, Thoreau publicly made his anti-war position known, and was promptly prosecuted for his tax evasion, which had been more or less condoned by local authorities until his opposition to the war. Thoreau spent just one night in jail before an anonymous relative paid his due taxes, but the experience paved the way for his justification for his actions in 1849 with “Civil Disobedience” (or “Resistance to Civil Government” as it was titled before his death).

The role of transcendentalists in publishing in intellectual, activist, and abolitionist circles in New England also contributed to the importance of a right to free press and expression in the transcendentalist tradition. Notably, William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, was the source of abolitionist content as it related to the intersection of the cultivation of the self, theology, and spirituality more broadly.

This sentiment is further demonstrated in the works of one of the transcendental writers at the forefront of the intellectual movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson makes a call for an artist to express candidly the truth of the experience of nature and goodness, but also makes reference to the imperative of sharing and publishing such a thing. He writes:

“The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth. The young man reveres men of genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is. They receive of the soul as he also receives, but they more. […] For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression. Notwithstanding this necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare.” 

For Emerson, who is serving here as mouthpiece for the transcendental movement more broadly, the use of a free press and publication are essential to becoming ourselves. That’s a fairly esoteric concept, but the broader point stands that the free press is an essential and productive thing for society.


Andrews, Barry M. Transcendentalism and the Cultivation of the Soul. University of Massachusetts Press, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv35q8sj.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The Poet” (https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/poet.html)

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

Continental Philosophy/Frankfurt School 🖉 edit

The scholars of the Frankfurt School wrote much more on the mass culture and its effects on the public sphere rather than the freedom of the press. However, they believed that the press was an instrument by which citizens are informed and pushed to think critically, thus make decisions, and should remain so. Some of these scholars lived to witness how the Nazis employed mass culture to instill subordination to fascist culture and society. While in exile in the United States, members of the Frankfurt school came to believe that American ‘popular culture’ was similarly ideological, and that it worked to promote American capitalism's interests. In Dialectic of Enlightenment ( 1944) , Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, provided a trenchant critique of modern culture, establishing the term ‘culture industry’ to describe mass cultural forms that, in the wake of capitalism, transform the individual from an active thinking individual into an unthinking, passive consumer. Similarly, in 1962, Jürgen Habermas published Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere an Inquiry Into A Category Of Bourgeois Society, his critical investigation and analysis of the public sphere in civil society.

Jurgen Habermas expanded on Adorno and Horkheimer's ‘culture industry’ analysis. In providing historical context for the culture industry's triumph, Habermas emphasized how bourgeois society in the late 18th and 19th centuries was marked by the emergence of a “[public] sphere between civil society and the state, in which critical public discussion of matters of general interest was institutionally guaranteed”, and which mediated between public and private interests (Habermas, 1989, p.11). Individuals and groups could finally shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. The bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society.

Habermas was fascinated by the transition from opinion to public opinion, as well as the latter’s socio-structural change. The rise of the mass press, according to him, was founded on the commercialization of the people’s engagement in the public sphere. As a result, much of the original political nature of this ‘extended public sphere’ was lost in favor of commercialism and entertainment (Habermas, 1989, p. 169). This trend may be seen in the press, which is the most important entity of the public sphere: Habermas diagnoses the merging of the formerly distinct domains of journalism and literature, as well as a blurring produced by the mass media’s response to the rise of a consumerist culture. He argued that “Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning the selection and presentation of the material.” (Habermas, 1989, p.169)

The introduction of electronic mass media into the public sphere exacerbated the situation. The news is made to resemble a story from its own structure down to stylistic detail, thus the boundary between truth and fiction is increasingly being discarded (Habermas, 1989, p.170). However, while they have a greater influence than print media, their format effectively limits interaction and deprives the public of the opportunity to disagree and think critically, leading Habermas to the conclusion that “The world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only”, at the same time “the integrity of the private sphere which they promise to their consumers is also an illusion.” (Habermas, 1989, p.171). Adorno and Horkheimer agree with Habermas on this point, for them, “Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1944, p.121, para.1)

Habermas notes the contradiction between “the liberal public sphere’s constitutive catalogue of ‘basic rights of man’ and their de facto restriction to a certain class of men” (Habermas, 1989, p.11). The public sphere's character is becoming progressively limited; the media serve as tools of establishing and controlling consensus and promoting capitalist culture rather than fulfilling their original purpose as organs of public discussion. In favor of a staged performance, publicity loses its critical role, ideas are transmuted into symbols to which one cannot react by debating but only by identifying with. Unlike the coffee houses, Habermas pointed, “[they] were considered seedbeds of political unrest: Men have assumed to themselves a liberty […] to censure and defame the proceedings of the State” (Habermas, 1989, p.59). Throughout Structural Transformation, Habermas maintained that the mass media have evolved into monopolistic capitalist institutions. Their role in public debate has evolved from disseminating trustworthy information to shaping public opinion. To counter these developments and as a condition for a pluralist democratic debate in an open society that is not entirely dominated by the mass media. Habermas emphasized the importance of a vital and functioning public sphere, a sphere of critical publicity distinct from the state and the economy, consisting of a broad range of organizations that represent public opinion and interest groups.

From this, it is obvious that Habermas, Horkheimer and Adorno advocated for freedom of the press and freedom of speech, a press that is free from the monopolistic capitalist corporations and the influence of the state. One that informed citizens and left them to criticize freely. Habermas argued that “the press was systematically made to serve the interests of the state administration” (Habermas, 1989, p.22). At the same time, Habermas also argued that the elimination of censorship in England in the years of 1694 and 1695, gave some liberty to the press, even by a slight margin. “The elimination of the institution of censorship marked a new stage in the development of the public sphere” He stated, “It made the influx of rational-critical arguments into the press possible and allowed the latter to evolve into an instrument with whose aid political decisions could be brought before the new forum of the public” (Habermas, 1989, p.58). In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas stated clearly and explicitly that “Freedom of the press, radio, and television, as well as the right to engage in these areas, safeguards the media infrastructure of public communication; such liberties are thereby supposed to preserve an openness for competing opinions and a representative diversity of voices.” (Habermas, 1996, p.368, line.9)

Nevertheless, in comparison to the emerging media of the twentieth century, like film, radio, and television, the degree of economic concentration and technological coordination in the newspaper business appeared to be modest. Indeed, the funds for the media of the twentieth century appeared to be massive, and their propagandist power so intimidating, that in certain countries, capitalist or not, the development of these media was controlled by the government from the outset.


Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. ( 1944) . Dialectic of enlightenment . Verso.

Habermas, J. ( 1989) . The structural transformation of the public Sphere an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. MIT Press.

Habermas, J. ( 1996) . Between facts and norms: *contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. MIT Press.

Feminist Thought 🖉 edit

Freedom of the press is an issue proving to be more relevant in the modern era as the media influences the public and changes the way people make decisions within their life. It is for this reason that feminist theorists have briefly addressed this right as they recognize the power the press has for the feminist movement and the advancement of women's rights legally and socially. The notion of freedom of press is addressed by Betty Friedan and briefly Martha Nussbaum to explain the role the media plays when it comes to women achieving their rights and equality within society. When it comes to certain rights like freedom of press, the feminists are somewhat unclear about their stance on the issue although inferences can be made based on the implicit arguments made throughout their works.

The notion of freedom of press is interesting according to the feminist perspective because of the unclear answer they have on whether this right should exist within society. Specifically, when talking about the press, Friedan noticed that “At the first press conferences after the law went into effect, the administrator in charge of enforcing it joked about the ban on sex discrimination. ‘It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies,’ he said” (Friedan 1973, 368). Friedan points out the problems with the media and journalism in the country to help demonstrate the power men have in most institutions in America. She notes that journalism within a nation is important and should be allowed to do as they please so long as they put the right information forward. Despite being her expectation for the media, her example of how journalism is conducted shows that society’s intention is not towards the female empowerment agenda and therefore makes it hard to make a clear statement on freedom of the press. Like the other institutions Friedan discusses, the press is riddled with oppressive people who again will not use their power to help women. As Friedan notes above, the media had the chance to help encourage the ban on sex discrimination, but instead made a joke out of it and therefore discrediting the ban that could help enforce legal equality for women. Had the media approved of the ban, then it would have been received batter by society and may have even helped create more support for women and their efforts towards equality. Furthermore, Friedan notes “In Washington I found a seething underground of women in the government, the press, and the labor unions who felt powerless to stop the sabotage of this law that was supposed to break through the sex discrimination that pervaded every industry and profession, every factory, school, and office. Some of these women felt that I, as a now known writer, could get the public’s ear” (Friedan 1973, 369). Friedan notes the blatant discrimination women face in the government and the way that they are given the low jobs that are necessary for society to work the way it does, but she also notices that these women wish to be given the proper recognition they deserve. It is for this reason that Friedan would claim that there should be a freedom of press that conveys the right and appropriate message to the public about the state that women are in. It is this underground network of women in government that get cast aside by the men in society and Friedan believes that it should be the press to rediscover and report on the work that these women do in every single organization. Friedan recognizes the power the press must tell the stories of these women and their efforts to help society while not being given the recognition they deserve. Friedan believes that if the press can report about the discrimination and the problems women face and therefore challenge society into changing their views on women, then maybe there will be a possibility for change.

It is from the brief descriptions of instances from which one can derive an answer about whether freedom of press should exist within society. Friedan writes noticeably that “In fact, the media’s, political muckrakers’, and even feminists’ obsession with such charges, which originated as an expression of women’s new empowerment, now begins to seem almost diversionary” (Friedan 1973, 7). On the other end of her discussion of the media is the harm that the media can cause for women if it does not stay on the message that is trying to be conveyed. She notes that media and the press today might distract the public from the true message at hand and pull away from achieving social justice because society might focus on the details that are not that important or necessary. In other words, she understands that people contort the facts to achieve their own intentions which might also cause problems because again it takes away from the goals and the intentions of reporting about women’s issues. In addition, speaking to rights in general, Nussbaum notes that “Thinking of this problem, then, we can insist that universal norms of religious toleration, freedom of association, and the other liberties are essential in order to prevent illiberal subgroups from threatening legitimate forms of pluralism” (Nussbaum 2000, 52). Although the freedom of press is not specifically referenced by Nussbaum, it still follows the idea that feminist theorists follow the other liberties enshrined in society leaving the space for the possibility of freedom of press despite the unclear conclusion from the feminist perspective. Specifically, it is Nussbaum’s support of pluralism that supports the notion of freedom of press since allowing people to share and report on what they like adds to the notion of being plural with one’s opinions and what they share. To the feminist perspective, any right or liberty exists, it is just about how the right or liberty is used and encouraged to either help women or reinforce the patriarchy.

What is most interesting about the feminist political theory is the way that the rights people have only retain as much importance as society has assigned to it. In other words. Feminist theorists are not so much in political commentary, despite criticizing it, but have interests in the way society functions and therefore equate societal institutions and political ones. When it came to freedom of the press, then if it was mentioned, it was in terms of the way society has implemented it and how it affects women of the modern era and therefore why there is no explicit conclusion made about freedom of the press.


Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Dell Publishing Company INC. 1973

Nussbaum, Martha C. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge University Press

Kantianism 🖉 edit

In his seminal essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?, Kant states that enlightenment is when an individual attains the “spirit of rational respect for personal value and for the duty of all men to think for themselves” (Kant, 1991, p. 55). To be enlightened is to no longer believe things because that is what the authority prescribes, rather one is to find the truth by oneself. The final element to achieve enlightenment for Kant is using reason freely with others: “For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom[,]…freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters” (Ibid.). One’s personal enlightenment is dependent upon the willingness with which the individual shares his judgements with others. Gert Van Eekert in his explanation on Kant’s view of free expression states: “…enlightenment implies that one not only must have the courage, but also must enjoy the freedom to submit one’s opinions to the critique of all others…Intellectual independence of freedom of thought cannot exist without the freedom to think in community with others, and hence without the freedom to speak and write without constraints” (Van Eekert, 2017, p. 132).

It is along these lines that insights towards the right to freedom of the press can readily be made. A free press is a tool which allows for an individual’s own enlightenment, and this occurs through the criticism one opens oneself by publishing a piece of writing, as well as the opportunity to critique the writings and ideas that others make. The effects of a free press is then the enlightenment of society which Kant believes necessarily results from the opening of freedom: “The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men,” (Kant, 1991, p. 55).

Interestingly for Kant, a free press is beneficially for a leader because it contains criticisms of them. In his essay On the Common Saying: 'This May Be True in Theory, But It Does Not Apply in Practice' , Kant describes the good ruler has his subjects suffer only by mistake and ignorance, and therefore it is the subject’s duty to express his opinion of the ruler’s actions that way the ruler can correct it. Because of this duty, Kant states: “Thus freedom of the pen is the only safeguard of the rights of the people,” with the caveat of: “although it must not transcend the bounds of respect and devotion toward the existing constitution, which should itself create a liberal attitude of mind among the subjects” (Kant, 1991, p. 85). Kant therefore has a certain idealism as to the interaction between ruler and subject with the freedom of the press. The relationship certainly is a critical one where the subject criticizes the ruler’s actions, though the relationship is not antagonistic. The liberal ruler agrees with the values of the liberal subject, and the ruler uses the subject’s input to rule in a just way. Reciprocally, the subject also has the duty to follow the laws that the ruler bestows: “In every commonwealth, there must be obedience to a generally valid coercive laws within the mechanism of the political constitution” (Ibid., pg. 85).


Kant: Political Writings (ed. Reiss)

Geert Van Eekert, "Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Self-Expression, and Kant’s Public Use of Reason," Diametros 54 (2017): 118–137 doi: 10.13153/diam.54.2017.1136

Millian Utilitarianism 🖉 edit

John Stuart Mill’s work of On Liberty ( 1859) argues against government forcing ideas on the public and argues for the liberty of the press. This would allow for the free reign of ideas and knowledge in society without coercion from the public or their government. This argument allows for inclusion and argues against the censorship of any idea or opinion, no matter the stance or status of the individual. This argument would say that if the power of coercion is exercised, the government or institution is illegitimate and the only way a government can be legitimate is through granting the liberty of the press and of speech.

“The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defense would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt of tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in [the] interests with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear… the government, whether completely responsible to the people or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public…Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves, or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate.” (Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2 pp. 20-21).

Mill’s argument is that coercion is the source of illegitimate government and liberty of the press and speech allow for the free flow of opinions, ideas and knowledge that is the basis for political legitimacy. Government interference in this free flow is how government institutions stray from the public and cause illegitimacy. Mill argues for the freedom of the press and has this be the basis for political expression in legitimate governments.

Mill argues that the suppression of opinions by any person is to assume that this person has absolute certainty. This idea robs other humans from forming their own opinions about the first idea and if this suppression takes place, it says that the original idea is false because one person said so, not because the majority of people believe so. This act of suppression robs people of the right to form their own opinion and prevents majority opinions from being formed. Liberty, is then impossible because of this suppression of ideas, making freedom of the press vital to utilitarian ideals and public opinion in general (Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2 pp. 22-24).


Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays. 1859. Oxford World’s Classics, edited with introduction and notes by John Gray, 1991, pp. 20-24.

Postmodernism 🖉 edit

With the various applications of postmodernism--architectural, aesthetic, literary, and many others—central to its (varied) perspective on the right to freedom of the press is its philosophical and theoretical insistence on, as Jean-Francois Lyotard stated in The Postmodern Condition, the “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). Such metanarratives are complete explanations of ourselves and reality which were historically offered by religions, the sciences, and politics (Woods, 1999, p. 20). Examples include the insistence of the Enlightenment that reason would carry humanity towards greater progress, or Marxism’s analysis that material conditions of people is the driver of historical events. The postmodernist rejects all-encompassing narratives because of the realization that all knowledge is severely limited by the inheritance and context of the individual. The “whole story” is inaccessible to the individual who creates a metanarrative. In his short essay Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?, Lyotard concludes: “The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name” (Lyotard, 1984, p. 82). By “the unpresentable”, Lyotard means an expression or subject that is not accounted for under the metanarrative that is currently accepted. Along with the rejection of metanarratives, so too are any objective truth claims thrown out as the assumption that reality can be understood is its own limited, contingent narrative. With these metanarratives out of the way, all that is left are local, micronarratives and, important to the postmodernist, are the micronarratives which explicitly contradict the metanarratives that are accepted.

With this analysis, postmodernism gives two main insights towards the right to freedom of the press—one flattering or supportive to the right, the other critical and deconstructive. The first, supportive, insight is that the right to freedom of the press allows for the dissemination of countless micro or small narratives. The right actively prevents the “violent and tyrannical” metanarratives from imposing their “false universality” (Woods, 1999, p. 21) onto the margins that do not have the same confirming experience. A free press entirely attacks the self-legitimation which these narratives perpetrate.

The second, more cynical insight is that the right to freedom of the press is at least an important mechanism for a metanarrative and at most a metanarrative itself. In Zühtü Arslan’s account of postmodernism’s interpretation of human rights, he claims: “[T]he most important feature of the postmodern discourse which makes impossible a friendly relationship with human rights is its hostility to the concept of the autonomous subject and to the idea of universality” (Arslan, 1999, p. 196). The human subject, with his autonomy and moral importance, is one that was constructed by the contexts and contingencies of the modernists that theorized him. With this, the universalization of this right fails before it even began. Moreover, any attempt by a government to establish such a right, as well as argue for its existence, is merely an attempt at self-legitimization of its own power. The right to freedom of the press is then, counter to the first insight stated above, an attempt to defend the metanarrative already established.

In the end, postmodernism gives two contradictory insights on the right to freedom of the press. One in which the freedom of the press is a tool for the micronarratives of the marginalized to express their points of view which contrast the tyrannical meta narrative, and the other in which the freedom of the press merely another expression of the dominant metanarrative already assumed and taken for granted.


Arslan, Zuhtu. “Taking Rights Less Seriously: Postmodernism and Human Rights.” Res publica (Liverpool, England) 5, no. 2 (1999): 195–.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Geoffrey Bennington, and Brian Massumi. The Postmodern Condition : a Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Pragmatism 🖉 edit

Defined broadly, pragmatism is an American philosophical tradition which posits that the truth value of a statement or belief is dependent on its “successful practical consequences” (Talisse, 2008, p. 61). What makes a belief true is not how clearly or equally the belief maps onto reality, rather it is comparing the expected consequences that a belief will give us, and then comparing that expectation with what actually occurs. If the expectation and outcome are the same, that belief is considered to be true.

John Dewey was the pragmatist philosopher who dealt with politics in the most systematic way. Dewey saw democracy as a way of life and the moral ideal for human beings which led to the good life (Talisse, 2014) . Dewey states: “[D]emocracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community of community life itself” (Dewey, 1973, p. 623). What works for the community is kept and what does not work is changed and adapted, and this dialectic never concludes: “[T]his translation is never finished. The old Adam, the unregenerate element in human nature persists” (Dewey, 1973, p. 627). It’s only through communication between the members of society that this “old Adam” is challenged—a communication where “shared interest in the consequences of interdependent activities may inform desire and effort and thereby direct action” (Ibid.). The result is a society which addresses all issues and problems of human life, including all virtues. Talisse describes this as perfectionism: “Perfectionists hold that it is the job of the state to cultivate among citizens the dispositions, habits, and virtues requisite to human flourishing”, later stating: “the perfectionist project is a task for all modes of human association” (Talisse, 2014) .

The right to freedom of the press fits clearly into Deweyan democracy, both because of its inherent sociality, as well as its nature of reasoning or problem solving. The right allows for the issues of the society to be freely expressed and then debated by citizens amongst themselves in a nationwide. This free discourse then determines which particular elements of the society should be taken out, adapted or kept, thus allowing for a constant improvement. Moreover, the expression found in a free press is what specifically allows for the criticisms and improvements of societies to be noticed and realized in the first place: “There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it…Without freedom of expression, not even methods of social inquiry can be developed” (Dewey, 1973, p. 633-634).

Pragmatist Richard Rorty similarly defended democracy, and by extension the free, though he does so for radically different reasons. In fact, Rorty believed that an attempt to justify democracy and its accompanying rights was a distraction. Democracy and rights are experiments. Particular hypotheses we have towards how we will act and expected consequences that come therefrom: “If the experiment fails, our descendants may learn something important. But they will not learn a philosophical truth, any more than they will learn a religious one. They will simply get some hints about what to watch out for when setting up their next experiment” (Rorty, 1992, p. 270).


Dewey, John, John J. McDermott, and John J. (John Joseph) McDermott. The Philosophy of John Dewey. New York: Putnam Sons, 1973.

Rorty, Richard. “THE PRIORITY OF DEMOCRACY TO PHILOSOPHY.” In Prospects for a Common Morality, edited by GENE OUTKA and JOHN P. REEDER, 254–78. Princeton University Press, 1993. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7sfw3.15.

Talisse, Robert B., and Scott F. Aikin. Pragmatism : a Guide for the Perplexed. London ;: Continuum, 2008.

What do the major legal theories (positive law, natural law, critical legal studies, etc.) say about this right? + create

Are there any philosophical or moral traditions that dispute the classification of this right as a fundamental right? + create