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U.C. Irvine Law Review




This Article offers a critical account of the law of press freedom. American law and political culture laud the press as an institution that plays a vital role in democracy: guarding against corruption, facilitating self-governance, and advocating for free expression. These democratic functions provide justification for the law of press freedom, which defends the media’s autonomy and shields the press from outside interference.

But the dominant accounts of the press’s democratic role are only partly accurate. The law of press freedom is grounded in large part in journalism’s professional commitments to objectivity, public service, and autonomy. These idealized characterizations, flawed from the start, drive a business model and a legal strategy that is increasingly at odds with democracy itself. In both its journalism and in its legal advocacy, the press often reifies existing social and racial hierarchies. An inconsistent defender of free expression, the press strategically sits out many First Amendment battles; in others, it pursues narrow, modest remedies unlikely to protect many outside of its ranks. While the press continues to burnish its image as a critical force for the preservation of democracy, its legal strategy has become increasingly detached from the public good.

Alongside a more clear-eyed assessment of the press’s foundational commitments should come a broader rethinking of the press’s freedom and legal strategy. Amid dire technological, economic, and political challenges, the reigning ideology of press freedom disserves press institutions as well as broader First Amendment values and democratic interests. This Article concludes by pointing a path toward alternative legal strategies for the press that would better respond to contemporary challenges to democracy.

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University of California, Irvine School of Law

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