Trump keeps threatening to weaken libel protections. It’s time to take him seriously.

The ad that sparked a libel revolution. See the original at the National Archives.

Among President Trump’s few animating principles is his deep and abiding belief that the libel laws were created for his personal enrichment. Thus it should have surprised no one when White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said over the weekend that Trump may seek to dismantle a vital protection against libel suits for journalists who report on matters of public interest.

“I think it’s something that we’ve looked at,” Priebus said on ABC News’ “This Week” in response to a question by Jonathan Karl. “How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story.” Priebus added that news organizations must “be more responsible with how they report the news.”

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Re-reading Anthony Lewis’ ode to the First Amendment in the age of Trump

We are at a frightening moment. To refresh my understanding of what the First Amendment truly means, I recently re-read Anthony Lewis’ magnificent 2007 book “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.” I’m glad I did. The late New York Times columnist, who was married to former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall, was a giant in his understanding of and reverence for the right to speak and write freely.

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More on why Trump is right to want to eliminate nonprofit speech restrictions

Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

President Trump last week promised to repeal a law that prohibits tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates. As he put it at the National Prayer Breakfast in his characteristically bombastic style, he would “totally destroy” the ban, pushed through Congress in 1954 by Sen. Lyndon Johnson.

The proposal, predictably, was met with opposition by many observers, who argued that such a move would threaten the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

But religious leaders — and everyone — should be able to speak freely without fearing that their words will cost them money. Somehow the republic managed to survive until 1954 without those free-speech rights being abridged. There is no reason to think that restoring those rights will be our downfall today.

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Trump wants to ‘totally destroy’ restrictions on nonprofit speech. I agree.

President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier today promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofit organizations from engaging in certain types of political speech lest they lose their tax exemptions. The amendment was pushed through Congress in 1954 by Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, who was under attack by several nonprofit groups back in Texas.

Religious organizations have been complaining about the restriction for years. In 2009 I wrote a commentary in The Guardian agreeing with them, though my main concern was that the amendment prevented nonprofit news organizations from endorsing political candidates. Given that nonprofit news is becoming an increasingly important part of the media landscape, it seemed (and seems) unwise to ban such projects from engaging in what traditionally has been a vital service to their communities. I argued:

Would this mean greater influence for the likes of religious hatemongers such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins? Yes. But the whole idea behind free speech is it’s for everyone, not just those with whom you agree.

I also wrote critically about the Johnson Amendment in my 2013 book “The Wired City,” much of which was an examination of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.

I have not changed my mind. And thus I applaud our orange leader for standing up for free speech. Leaders of nonprofit organizations, including religious groups, should not have to fear that if they speak out they’ll literally have to pay a penalty.

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A shocking breach of the First Amendment

Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O'Brien.
Photo (cc) 2016 by Paul O’Brien.

The detention of a Canadian photojournalist at the US border is a shocking breach of the First Amendment. Ed Ou says he was stopped on October 1 as he was trying to fly to Bismarck, North Dakota, to cover the Standing Rock protests. According to the New York Times, his phones were confiscated so that authorities could look at his photos, possibly endangering the subjects of those photos.

The Obama years have not been good ones for freedom of the press, as I’ve written in the past. They’re going to get a whole lot worse under Donald Trump, with his call for upending the libel laws and with his thuggish manservant Corey Lewandowski demanding that Times executive editor Dean Baquet be locked up for publishing Trump’s partial tax returns.

The United States currently ranks 41st in press freedom, according to Reporters WIthout Borders. We could be considerably lower than that the next time the ratings are readjusted.

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Why the Gawker case could set a dangerous precedent

gawker1-1Gawker’s prob­lems began in October 2012, when the gossip site ran a por­tion of a sex tape fea­turing wrestler Hulk Hogan, which Hogan claimed vio­lated his pri­vacy and infringed on his publicity rights.

It was later revealed that Sil­icon Valley bil­lion­aire Peter Thiel—an out­spoken critic of the website—provided finan­cial backing for Hogan’s suit, which came to a close ear­lier this year, when a Florida court ruled in Hogan’s favor and the jury handed down a $140 mil­lion ver­dict that ulti­mately doomed the media company.

Here, Dan Kennedy, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the School of Jour­nalism and a nation­ally known media com­men­tator, weighs in on the effect of shut­tering the gossip site on the broader media land­scape and the “trou­bling” mechanics behind the suit that served as its demise. Its ter­mi­na­tion, he says, could empower “wealthy inter­ests” to use the legal system to drive media orga­ni­za­tions out of business.

Read the rest at news@Northeastern.

Presenting the 19th annual New England Muzzle Awards

Illustration by Brendan Lynch/WGBH News
Illustration by Brendan Lynch/WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

An elected school committee that voted unanimously to condemn a newspaper reporter for tweeting out news from a public meeting. A sheriff who flashed his badge while asking store owners to remove posters for his political opponent. Officials in three New England cities who cracked down on panhandlers in clear violation of their free-speech rights.

These are just three of the stories that are featured in the 19th annual New England Muzzle Awards, our Fourth of July roundup of outrages against free speech. All that and Donald Trump, too.

First, though, some good news. Last year we called for reform of the notoriously weak Massachusetts public-records law, which had earned an “F” from the State Integrity Project. At long last, the legislature passed a reform bill, which was signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker on June 3.

The most important part of the law is that, finally, people whose public-records requests are wrongly ignored or turned down may receive expense money to cover their legal fees. The law also puts limits on how much money government agencies can charge for records and mandates that those records be made available electronically when feasible.

“This bill represents a significant step forward for transparency in Massachusetts,”said Bob Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, in a statement. “It will do a lot to improve access to public records.”

The law is far from perfect. It still applies only to local government and executive agencies, exempting the governor’s office, the court system, and the legislature. It also extends the amount of time government agencies have to respond to public-records requests—perhaps a reasonable step given how widely ignored the old deadlines were, but something that will have to be monitored.

Another Muzzle note: As we were wrapping up this year’s list, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo vetoed a bill outlawing the posting of so-called revenge porn. As Raimondo rightly observed, “The breadth and lack of clarity may have a chilling effect on free speech. We do not have to choose between protecting privacy rights and respecting the principles of free speech.” We’ll be keeping an eye on this to see if it raises its censorious head during the coming year.

The Muzzle Awards, launched in 1998, were published for many years in the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the fourth year they have been hosted by WGBH News. They take their name from the Jefferson Muzzles, begun in 1992 by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

The envelopes, please …

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