White House

The First Amendment Is Not the ‘Be Nice to Journalists Act of 1791’

President Donald Trump participates in a rally in support of South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster in West Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., June 25, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters )
Describing Trump as uniquely antagonistic to the First Amendment among presidents is preposterous.

Members of the Fourth Estate, especially the TV reporters, have a curious view of the First Amendment. They seem to be under the impression that it says something like this:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; nor shall any president troll Jim Acosta or describe Katy Tur as “little”; nor shall any president draw undue attention to honest errors committed by the press in their noble pursuit of speaking truth to power; nor shall any president say the New York Times or Washington Post are failing when they totally aren’t; nor shall any president fail to ensure White House briefings are televised to maximize exposure of journalists who have put a lot of work into their hair and makeup; nor shall any mouthpiece of any such president bestow undue prominence in said briefings to reporters from Newsmax or the Daily Caller; nor shall any president be unduly mean to the press in general.

Last night a prominent TV journalist posted a take on the First Amendment of such breathtaking inanity that it amounted to pundit malpractice. It was as if the doctor who does your annual checkup failed to notice you have a knife sticking out of your abdomen. It was as if the mechanic you hired to rotate your tires forgot to put several of them back on your car. Report to accept chastisement, Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News: You said one of the dumbest things any Washington journalist has said in the Trump era, and that is saying something.

While President Trump was mocking the media as usual at his South Carolina rally last night, Hunt tweeted, “The last person to rule America who didn’t believe in the First Amendment was King George III.” Leave aside that Trump does not “rule” America or that the First Amendment didn’t exist during the period of British rule anyway. Describing Trump as uniquely antagonistic to the First Amendment among presidents is preposterous. It is historical illiteracy. Many previous presidents seriously undermined the First Amendment. Trump has not, and today it is at least as robust as it has ever been in the entire history of the republic.

Let’s review some of the most obvious cases in which presidents merrily stomped all over the First Amendment. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. This led directly to the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of Americans for expressing ideas. Some were journalists; one was an actual U.S. representative: Matthew Lyon, a Democratic-Republican congressman from Vermont, spent four months in prison under the acts for writing a column (he charged Adams with “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice”) that Charles Blow’s editors at the New York Times would today reject for being too mild.

Abraham Lincoln personally issued an executive order to close two New York newspapers he hated and had their editors arrested. His army also closed down a telegraph service, and with the approval of his secretary of war, Edward Stanton, a military governor destroyed the offices of the Washington, D.C., paper the Sunday Chronicle. Americans were arrested for singing Confederate songs or for wearing Confederate buttons. President Grant signed the Comstock Act of 1873, which made it illegal to send through the mails obscene material or even letters discussing sexual matters.

President Wilson pushed for and won passage of the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it illegal to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government. Among those convicted and imprisoned under the act was Eugene V. Debs, the socialist labor leader and five-time presidential candidate, who spent two and a half years in prison because he gave a speech urging men to resist the draft. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order creating an “office of censorship.”

Even if Hunt’s historical memory goes no farther back in time than hit movies released in the last year, she should know that President Nixon’s Justice Department enjoined the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers under the dubious logic that release of historical documents from years past constituted a threat to national-security secrets. The Times was forced to sue the U.S. in order to continue publishing.

Trump doesn’t even take the prize for being the president who made the most outrageously personal threats to journalists.

Trump doesn’t even take the prize for being the president who made the most outrageously personal threats to journalists. President Truman threatened to beat up a Washington Post music critic for writing that Truman’s daughter Margaret couldn’t sing. President Clinton said through a spokesman that he wanted to punch a New York Times columnist in the face for (correctly) describing Hillary Clinton as a liar.

Even President George W. Bush did more damage to the First Amendment than Trump ever will when he signed the single most pernicious threat to it that has arisen in recent decades — the McCain-Feingold law that gave the federal government the power to ban political books and movies. Not only were the leading journalistic outlets sanguine about this, when it came to the Citizens United decision that struck down aspects of the law, they loudly supported the forces of censorship, not the First Amendment. The media are therefore (much) more dangerous opponents of the First Amendment than is the president they despise.

At the South Carolina rally, when Trump referred to the press as the “the enemy of the people” and said, “Look at all those fake-newsers back there,” he may have damaged reporters’ frail egos but he did no harm to the First Amendment. In fact, Trump was simply exercising the First Amendment rights he and all citizens enjoy to speak as freely as they wish, with almost no restrictions. Sure, Trump could up the ante on his rhetoric. He could come out on the South Lawn tomorrow and give a 45-minute speech calling for the Washington Post to be shut down. But if he did that, the proper reaction would be to just laugh. The First Amendment is in the strongest shape it’s ever been in, and it’s a lot stronger than Trump.


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