Now, with globalization well underway, it is imperative that we begin to think more systematically about how we will build and develop the concept of a free press for a new global public forum.

This is part of a larger historical process. Authority and structures related to authority have to shift as human activity changes. This happened throughout the last century in many areas of the society. When the US economy went from a collection of mostly local and regional affairs to a national system, policymaking and regulation had to shift accordingly. One example is our central banking system. Established in 1913, the Federal Reserve System was organized to provide twelve regional banks with the authority to deal with what was then a set of regional economies. But in the ensuing decades, as the economy became national in scope, a more centralized banking authority was needed, and the powers of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington grew accordingly.

We can see the same process unfolding over the twentieth century with respect to the First Amendment and the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the press. As the issues faced by the nation became more and more national in reach, in part because of the growth of a national economy, and as the technologies of communication facilitated a national discussion, the power of local communities to set the balance between a free press and other societal interests (like reputation, privacy, offensiveness, and so on) became intolerable. Censorship anywhere effectively constituted censorship everywhere, since speakers in the new national forum would naturally be inhibited by local censorship. This was one of the great insights of the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which nationalized the rules with respect to defamation laws throughout the country.

As we move toward more global systems, a similar evolution needs to occur. We have the technological capacity for an effective global discussion led by a vibrant press, but two critical elements are missing: First, we do not have sufficient international consensus about the vital role of a free, independent, and professional global press. And, second, here in the US we do not really have the capacity for high-quality, professional journalism on a global scale.

On the first point: many nations, of course, actively fear an independent press and see journalism more as an instrument of governmental policy than as a source of objective information and analysis. In these countries there is debilitating censorship and restrictions on the media’s access to information. But the problems this creates for the free flow of information and ideas are no longer limited to speech in those nations. What happens in a system of global communication is the same thing that happens with local censorship in a national system—censorship anywhere chills speakers everywhere. A lot of what we will need to know about the world in the coming years will come through the efforts of “local” journalists. When “local” journalism is suppressed, therefore, our ability to hear and know is curtailed. In other words, censorship in, say, China, can be as significant, or even more significant to us than censorship in, say, California.

As we work to surmount this challenge, we need to remind ourselves that our own American route to a vibrant free press was not a straight line; our approach was neither consistent nor wholly admirable. We too sent people to jail merely for giving speeches or publishing commentary that the government claimed would undermine public order. We too tried to enjoin the press from publishing official secrets. We too denied the press access to newsworthy events and information.

What we ended up discarding is currently accepted in some parts of the world. China, in particular, appears to be struggling with a commitment to a more or less open economic system and a relatively closed communications system. Two contrasting interpretations of contemporary China have been emerging. One view surmises that the sophisticated leadership of China understands and accepts that the changes in Chinese citizens produced by the adoption of capitalism will inevitably result in greater demands for intellectual openness. It’s just a matter of time, according to this view. But another view from serious China observers is that the leadership believes quite the opposite—that they can have both sustained economic growth and a closely controlled society. They see these societal characteristics not as inconsistent or in tension but as complementary. Many are watching to see how this great debate between two competing visions of contemporary China will be resolved and which will ultimately prevail.

Lee C. Bollinger is the president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide Open: A Free Press for a New Century (Oxford, 2010). This article is adapted from a September 2010 lecture delivered by Bollinger at the University of Illinois College of Law. A previous version was published in the University of Illinois Law Review.