The state of press freedom in the U.S.

Following the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, journalist Evan Lambert was detained for covering the incident, charged for criminal trespass and resisting arrest, bringing into question necessary freedoms of press that would ordinarily protect reporters from such treatment. Despite the eventual dismissal of the charges, the incident has sparked further debate concerning the overarching rights of journalists, and by extension, our ability to exercise freedoms of speech and press. Lambert was openly arrested during a press conference, and for some, the action stands as an omen signifying the widespread and unapologetic decline of press freedom in the United States.


A common sector where free speech and freedom of the press has particularly come under attack is social media. As  online platforms boomed in the early 2000s with the advent of MySpace and then Facebook, the government struggled to keep up with, and neglected it. As a result, modern day politicians have been playing catch-up with social media giants such as Meta and Twitter, and unmitigated speech has run rampant in the absence of legislation, spurring important social progress and harmful rhetoric in equal parts. While social media has certainly had positive impacts on the world, it resides in a gray area with regards to personal freedoms. This is exemplified with one of the most polarizing figures of the past decade, Elon Musk.


With his controversial management of Twitter in recent months, Musk has thrust press freedom into the spotlight. Though preaching the importance of free speech when he took on management of the platform in October, actions Musk has taken since prove contradictory. In December, Musk suspended multiple journalists from the platform after they used their accounts to relay information tracking Musk’s private jet, publicizing his destination. Once begun, to what extent can those in power silence journalism, and by extent, free speech? And under what grounds should Musk have the ability to exercise this power?


“It is clear that Elon Musk is a powerful man in the United States, and I think he is overstepping his power with Twitter and social media,” said Anna Burns (’24). “If this is allowed it is opening a door to other powerful figures in our country to restrict journalists on social media.”


The First Amendment grants and protects the freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. In addition to this, Section 326 of the Communications Act prohibits government agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from censoring material and interfering with a journalist’s expression in their broadcast. However, there are laws that ensure that individuals are held accountable for what they say rather than companies that their statements are published on, such as Section 230, Title 47 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.


Freedom of the press has been an ideal of our country since the Constitution, and it has been expanded upon since then. It is granted to people throughout the world through the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which allows people to have the freedom of speech and not be punished for their beliefs, even if controversial. Even with recent affronts on the integrity of the right, it is solidly backed through legislation at the state, federal, and even global level.


“If one person gets freedom of press, everyone needs to get freedom of press,” said Spencer Kaltenmark (’26). “You can’t just take it away from some people. It’s like saying you have freedom of press but you can’t publish one specific thing. It’s not freedom of press anymore.”


On the World Press Freedom Index, the United States is ranked 42 out of 180, behind countries like Burkina Faso and Moldova. This score is calculated by the country’s political, economic and sociocultural context, along with its legal framework  and security. The United States earned its score mainly due to many large broadcasting corporations being owned by a handful of wealthy individuals, the disappearance of local news, the polarization of media, debated over legislative reforms regarding the role of the media, distrust in the media and the increased danger of working as a journalist.


“In the United States, once considered a model for press freedom and free speech, press freedom violations are increasing at a troubling rate.” said Reporters Without Borders (RSF).


For a country that prides itself on the idea of freedom of expression, among other aspects, the U.S. lacks proper protection of personal freedoms and liberties that are necessary to the foundation of this country. A country created on the ideals of personal liberty and innately anti-fascist rhetoric, one whose revered Founding Fathers defended against tyranny and oppression of speech and press. In the past 250 years, the US has only regressed in this regard.