The First Amendment to the United States Constitution and various decisions of the Supreme Court interpreting it are fundamental to the legal framework, and limit many kinds of media regulation that exist in other countries, for example regarding hate speech or election campaigns. For broadcasting, two pieces of legislation are central, the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Communications Act set up the so-called “trusteeship model” of broadcast regulation, which granted licenses mainly to commercial enterprises, but required them to use the airwaves in a way consistent with the “public convenience and necessity,” and required periodic license renewals. This structure still exists in principle, but with deregulation starting in the 1980s, the license renewal process became essentially a formality. There are also laws specifically governing cable television, the most recent being the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. Libel or defamation laws, as well as privacy laws, are primarily defined at the State level, though subject to review by the Federal courts. About 30 states have passed “shield laws” giving some protection to journalists for sources and other confidential information. There is no Federal shield law. The Freedom of Information Act, which went into effect in 1967, gives citizens rights of access to information produced by the Federal government and creates procedures for requesting information. It is used extensively by journalists, particularly for investigative reporting. States also have such laws, which vary in their effectiveness and provisions.
The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 established rules governing the financing of Federal election campaigns, though these were weakened in important ways by the Supreme Court in 2010.