“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

-Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Resources ... The Idea ... Making the Idea a Reality ... Legacy

Timeline: America's Free Press

A Closer Look

The Idea

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost”
- Thomas Jefferson, 1786

Jefferson believed in the necessity of a free press as a watchdog to keep citizens informed and involved in government affairs, but the press had an obligation to accuracy in reporting. In Jefferson’s words: "Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint.”

Freedom of the press was a major controversy in early America and its role as a watchdog and forum to criticize public officials is no less controversial today.


Making the Idea a Reality


Jefferson and the Partisan Press

The partisan politics arising from the creation of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties gave birth to the partisan press.

Jefferson’s letters reveal his mixed feelings on the freedom of the press, which he came to view as a necessary evil.

The Legacy

The Bill of Rights ensures the right to a free press in America, yet defining and protecting that is an ongoing challenge.

Timeline Collage

Click to view a timeline of key moments in the history of the free press in America.

Moving Forward

“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” - Thomas Jefferson, 1816

A Civic Engagement Initiative sponsored by and in collaboration with The New York Community Trust – The Peter G. Peterson FundPeterson Foundation Logo