Joseph Russomanno: Trump A Risk To First Amendment Speech, Press Freedom

Published: Monday, June 27, 2016 - 5:21pm
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We won’t be able to say we didn’t see it coming. The behavior of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump indicates what a President Trump might do. That would seem to include his dismantling of parts of our First Amendment - speech and press freedom. Joseph Russomanno explains.

Donald Trump’s war with the news media continues. At a recent news conference, Trump blasted reporters, including describing some of those present as “dishonest” and singling out one journalist as a “sleaze.” It was another Trump tantrum – this one over news reports that painted a less-than-positive portrait of him.

Yes, some reports make him look very bad. Sometimes the truth does that. And there’s the rub. The American brand of speech and press freedom reveres the truth. Our law even allows for minor falsity in limited circumstances in an effort to achieve “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate on matters of public concern.

It is done with the hope that the truth will ultimately emerge. The First Amendment allows for — even encourages — the kind of reporting that challenges authority in the name of the people. And it protects the people in their right to discuss and debate various viewpoints, in the process becoming an informed electorate armed with the power of the vote. The government can’t interfere.

But Trump wants to change that. Earlier this year, he announced his desire to alter our libel laws so that the publishers of reports he finds unacceptable can be successfully sued. No president can do that. That would require an about-face by the U.S. Supreme Court, a court that even in its most conservative eras tends to be First Amendment–friendly.

The ability to criticize government and public officials (including political candidates) is a cornerstone of this democratic society. The ability of the press and citizens to hold those in power accountable is precisely what the Founding Fathers had in mind. And yet, even some of them went astray.

With the ink barely dry on the Bill of Rights, a president who thought he knew better, John Adams, and his Federalist compatriots in Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798. Designed to consolidate executive authority, the new law criminalized criticism of the administration and Congress. Several violators were arrested and successfully prosecuted, including newspaper publishers who had dared to print the truth.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the way in explaining how the dangerous law subverted the First Amendment and its meaning. Public sentiment eventually turned. The Federalists were voted out of office, and the party disintegrated. The first step toward discerning the central meaning of the First Amendment had been taken.

Like Trump today, Adams and the Federalists wanted a subservient press. In the late 18th century, it look the likes of Jefferson and Madison to confront tyranny. Who is the Jefferson or Madison to confront this 21st-century version?

Joseph Russomanno is an associate professor in ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a faculty affiliate at the O’Connor College of Law. He is a First Amendment and media law expert.

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