This week, the press secretary for the 45th president of the United States excluded certain media outlets from a press briefing. The exclusion came after #45 blasted what he called “fake news” which he vowed to fight. He cited no particular stories which he could demonstrate contained falsehoods, and has not responded to the various misstatements — possibly deliberate untruths — by himself and his staff.
The mind boggles, time after time. Brave bloggers and bold reporters keep reminding us, paragraph after paragraph, that these actions echo the way in which Hitler gained control of Germany. The Nazi machine disparaged freedom of thought and eventually took over the press.
My fear for the demise of our First Amendment rights sent me to the computer to research the evolution of how our nation has protected those rights. Ironically, some of the most powerful words from our U.S. Supreme Court date back many decades, reminding me of the current administration’s promise to “make America great again”. It’s difficult not to infer that #45 thinks America was great back when women couldn’t protect their bodies from men’s hands and white males occupied every office.
Yet that same era brought us the bold statements of justices who strove to identify and protect the rights which comprise the fabric of the American experiment. In Roth v. U. S., 354 U. S. 476 (S. Ct. 1957), Justice William Brennan wrote:
“The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people. This objective was made explicit as early as 1774 in a letter of the Continental Congress to the inhabitants of Quebec:
‘The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in the diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communicaiton of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs. 1 Journal of the Continental Congress 108 (1774).'”
Thus we know without supposition that our nation’s founders considered a free press vital to the advancement of ideas and protection from oppression. Advancement. Not regression. Promotion of union, not the driving of a stake between groups of people. Nor did the founders of our nation intend that the press itself should be repressed when it challenges the administration. Rather, as Justice Brennan continued:
“The fundamental freedoms of speech and press have contributed greatly to the development and well-being of our free society and are indispensable to its continued growth. Ceaseless vigilance is the watchword to prevent their erosion by Congress or by the States. The door barring federal and state intrusion into this area cannot be left ajar; it must be kept tightly closed and opened only the slightest crack necessary to prevent encroachment upon more important interests”. Roth, 354 U. S. at 488.
I cannot believe that Trump voters expected him to suppress information and block the media from reporting on the policies and practices of his administration. But that is precisely what he has signaled he intends to do. He tell us that he believes certain media report “false news”, and because he deems them “false news”, his staff will curtail their access to his administration.
“The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be obtained by lawful means, an opportunity essential to the security of the Republic, is a fundamental principle of our constitutional system.” Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359, 369 (1931). This statement has not lost the shine of truth. Yet this fundamental principle stands in peril today, 86 years after its utterance.
Our Supreme Court finds the Freedom of Press so integral to our nation’s fabric that it will not allow the press to be challenged even by a claim of libel. It has observed:
“Authoritative interpretations of the First Amendment guarantees have consistently refused to recognize an exception for any test of truth—whether administered by judges, juries, or administrative officials—and especially one that puts the burden of proving truth on the speaker. Cf. Speiser v. Randall, 357 U. S. 513, 525-526. The constitutional protection does not turn upon “the truth, popularity, or social utility of the ideas and beliefs which are offered.” N. A. A. C. P. v. Button, 371 U. S. 415, 445. As Madison said, “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing; and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” 4 Elliot’s Debates on the Federal Constitution (1876), p. 571.”
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 US 254, 271 (S. Ct.1964).
I struggle to understand how contemporary events will contribute to the greatness of America. Yet I do find one kernel of light in this frightening incident. Two news outlets allowed into the press briefing refused to attend because of the exclusion of their colleagues from The New York Times, CNN, and the LA Times, among others. Bravo, AP and Time Magazine. Bravely done.
Freedom of the press shines brightly among the self-evident truths that I used to take for granted. I find myself re-thinking the grandeur of America. During the presidential campaign, my pride in this nation prompted me to question how any one could look at Donald Trump’s behavior, hear his rhetoric and believe that he could make our nation great. Now I realize that my concept of greatness might conflict with that of Trump and his supporters.
My blood runs cold at the thought of living in an America made into the kind of place that Trump seems to contemplate, where he gets to pick and choose what is said of him and his administration. and by whom. Our nation grew out of the notion that such power should not be wielded on our shores, much less in our capitol. That is not my America. That is not the America of the Boston Tea Party, the Bill of Rights, and our founding fathers. It is some place else; some place dark and cold, a place in which I for one do not long to dwell.