Politics & Policy

Trump vs. the First Amendment

President Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, October 13, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
He doesn’t understand what the FCC is — or the value of free speech.

As a purely legal question, free speech is in as good a position as it’s ever been, thanks in no small part to the work of those Republican presidents and senators our friends on talk radio are always complaining about, saying they’ve never accomplished anything.

As a more general matter . . . 

President Donald Trump’s recent (most recent) testing of the censorship waters is disturbing in a by-now-familiar way, combining the hallmark elements of the president’s political style: ignorance, stupidity, pettiness, and malice.

The president proposed having the Federal Communication Commission review and possibly revoke the licenses of cable-news channels and network broadcasters whose news programming he deems unfair. The problems with that are several.

First, as one FCC commissioner took the time to explain, the FCC does not license networks or cable channels. NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox News, etc., do not have FCC licenses to review or revoke. The FCC licenses individual stations. President Trump might want to take the FCC’s standing advice on the matter and write a letter to the station manager or to the directors of the news divisions. Surely, they would enjoy that.

It is not entirely surprising that the president doesn’t quite know what the FCC is or what it does. He was elected to the highest office in the land without quite understanding how a bill becomes a law — alas, Schoolhouse Rock has failed us! — and without really quite knowing what it is a president does. God help us all if he ever gets interested in the Federal Reserve or the Department of Energy.

Bill Mitchell, the Trump sycophant whose comprehensive lack of self-respect makes Paul Begala look like Cincinnatus, went on to argue that print publications such as Vanity Fair and the Washington Post should have their licenses revoked, too.

There is no such thing as a newspaper license in the United States.

There is the First Amendment.

You’d think that Americans would love the First Amendment, which gives every ordinary yokel on Twitter the right to say the president is a fool and the police chief is incompetent and the chairman of the board might profitably be replaced by a not-especially-gifted chimpanzee. But it isn’t very popular at all: Gutting the First Amendment is one of the top priorities of the Democratic party, which seeks to revoke its protection of political speech — i.e., the thing it’s really there to protect — so that they can put restrictions on political activism, which restrictions they call “campaign-finance reform.” They abominate the Supreme Court’s solid First Amendment decision in Citizens United, a case that involved not “money in politics” but the basic free-speech question of whether political activists should be allowed to show a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the days before an election. (Making a film and distributing it costs money, you see, hence “money in politics.”) They lost that one, but every Democrat in Harry Reid’s Senate — every one of them — voted to repeal the First Amendment.

Right-wing populists, too, are an illiberal bunch, and they would be entirely happy — for the moment — to see the executive branch empowered to harass the editors of the New York Times or to silence lefty television talkers such as Rachel Maddow. They are repeating the progressives’ mistake: imagining what their guy could do with vast new antidemocratic powers while never bothering to consider that the other side’s guy is probably going to get in there one of these days and enjoy the same powers. I wonder whether the Obama administration would have decided that assassinating American citizens for the crime of being “the Osama bin Laden of Facebook” was really such a good idea if they had known that Donald Trump would be the next man to enjoy that illegitimate power.

Free speech is extraordinarily unpopular on college campuses, and California has just enacted a flatly unconstitutional law that would empower the government to put people in jail for failing to use the preferred pronoun of a transgender person. That law will not stand up to a Supreme Court challenge — you can thank Mitch McConnell for that — but the fact that Governor Jerry Brown was able to sign it without a massive political backlash speaks to how low the people of that misgoverned state have sunk. It is a shameful spectacle. Maybe Jello Biafra had it right in “California Über Alles” after all.

But neither Governor Brown of California nor Dean Balthazar of Bryn Mawr is president of these United States, and President Trump has a positive duty to stand up for the American constitutional order rather than acting like a witless caudillo from some sweaty backwater. His old buddy Tom Barrack told the Washington Post that he is dismayed with the president’s performance, and insisted: “He’s better than this.”

I very much doubt that he is. But if he is, let him prove it.


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