If U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had his way, First Amendment protections for freedom of the press could be turned back not just to the pre-civil rights era but to the pre-Civil War era as well.
Let me explain. On Tuesday, Thomas wrotethat the court ought to overturn its landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision and allow the states free rein in deciding what standards should prevail in libel suits. In Sullivan, the court ruled that to prove libel public officials would have to show defamatory material about them was published with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false. That standard, known as “actual malice,” was later extended to public figures as well.
Now Thomas would reverse that. “The states are perfectly capable of striking an acceptable balance between encouraging robust public discourse and providing a meaningful remedy for reputational harm,” Thomas said. “We should reconsider our jurisprudence in this area.”
Several years ago the Massachusetts Legislature strengthened the state’s public-records law — but it is still among the weakest in the country. Now a commission aimed at reforming the law still further has disbanded without producing any recommendations, according to Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe.
The law currently applies only to the state’s executive agencies as well as to records kept by cities and towns. The Legislature, the courts and the governor’s office are all exempt.
Alex Jones is the sort of dangerous crank that freedom of speech was designed to protect. When the late Anthony Lewis wrote his “biography” of the First Amendment, he titled it “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” We don’t need constitutional protections to report on the church picnic. We need them to make sure that the most loathsome among us are allowed to spread conspiracy theories, spout vile insults, and stage outrageous demonstrations of hatred and prejudice.
And no, Jones is not in danger of losing his First Amendment rights. The government has not attempted to silence him. His website, InfoWars, continues to be a popular stop for those on the extreme right. He is facing a lawsuit from several of the Sandy Hook families, whom he had cruelly accused of staging an elaborate hoax. But that, too, is part of the First Amendment.
The problem is that Jones illustrates perfectly a dilemma that some of us have been warning about for years: the privatization of free speech. As you may know, Jones in recent months has been banned from Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. Last Friday he was cut off by PayPal as well. He’s going to need to find another way for his customers to pay him for those InfoWars Life Super Male Vitality supplements.
No one seriously questions the right of the tech platforms to banish Jones to the far corners of the internet. These services are owned by giant corporations that became fabulously wealthy (Facebook) or at least marginally profitable (Twitter) by offering their customers a controlled experience. Algorithms determine what you are most likely to see, especially on Facebook. Their policies prohibit nudity (usually), profanity (sometimes), copyright violations, and — especially as the manipulation of the 2016 election becomes clear — fake news aimed at swaying public opinion.
This would all be fine except that the platforms — and Facebook in particular — have become our new civic commons. As Josh Marshall, the founder and editor of the liberal website Talking Points Memo wrote recently, “To a real extent, the places you can exercise your speech these days are on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. That is really the heart of the problem. A big part of the public square has been gobbled up by closed systems: Facebook especially, but also Google’s YouTube, Twitter, et al.”
Now, as I said, no one is threatening Jones’ ability to reach millions of people through his website, although the weight of his legal problems might put him out of business. (Which would be fine with me.) If need be, he could host his site in another country, or from a server in his basement. But, these days, the platforms are how we extend our reach beyond the relatively small number of people who make the effort to seek us out. Early indications are that traffic to InfoWars dropped by half following Jones’ disappearance from Facebook. Again, that’s fine; Facebook, far from doing anything wrong, is acting responsibly. But with some 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook simply has too much power and influence to be trusted as a conservator of the First Amendment.
As Micah Sifry, who writes about the intersection of technology and civic life, put it in The New Republic, Facebook has usurped our initial hopes that the internet would spark a “civic renaissance” by democratizing information and giving everyone a voice:
With 68 percent of Americans currently using Facebook, it has become the nation’s de facto digital public square, at least in part because the country’s political leaders lacked the civic imagination to insist on a public alternative. With their tacit approval, Facebook built a giant garden for its users, walled off from the open internet. And then, taking advantage of its popularity, Facebook started copying and replacing older public forms of civic engagement with new ones that only liveinside its platform.
There is nothing new about this, and in some respects it predates technology. In 2003 I bestowed a New England Muzzle Award (then hosted by The Boston Phoenix, now by WGBH News) upon a mall in the almost-New England suburbs of Albany, New York, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing an antiwar T-shirt. Shopping centers have essentially become the new village square, except that they’re geared toward commerce rather than civic life. In 2017, I awarded Muzzles to YouTube (owned by Google) for suppressing a pro-Israel video by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and to Instagram (owned by Facebook) for deleting a photo of a nude painting posted by the Museum of Fine Arts. Technology companies have become so powerful that they need to take their First Amendment responsibilities seriously.
But the platforms are not common carriers like telephone companies, which are obligated to carry any calls and data that come their way. Nor are they the internet itself, although there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the possibility of censorship now that President Trump’s FCC has done away with net neutrality. The solution, if there is one, is to draw people away from Facebook and toward an idea animated by something other than the profit motive. “If Americans truly want a digital public forum centered on the needs of the citizenry,” writes Sifry, “it has to be built and maintained the same way they’ve built and maintained America’s national parks — as public goods open to all.
Which brings me back to Alex Jones. In theory, his freedom to speak and to publish are intact. In reality, he can’t gain access to the platforms he needs to get his message out. Jones, of course, must be held accountable for the Sandy Hook families who’ve had to go into hiding because of his vicious lies, and for promoting crazy conspiracy theories like the Pizzagate child-sex ring tied to Hillary Clinton, which prompted a deranged individual to show up and start shooting.
The semi-censorship to which Jones has been subjected — quieted, but not silenced — may seem like a small price to pay in order to stop him from harassing innocent people and putting their lives in danger. Given the media environment as it currently exists, the platforms did the right thing by taking away his megaphone. But their actions only underscore what we have lost by granting custody of our free-speech rights to private entities beyond our control. Next time it might be someone who’s far less malevolent than Jones.
We really need to ask ourselves whether we want that accountability to come in the form of giant corporations silencing him simply because it’s good for business. I would not tell Mark Zuckerberg how to run his company, although even he has suggested that he would not be averse to some common-sense regulations. Like Sifry, though, I believe the time has come to try to revive the idea of the internet as a truly public space rather than the private playground of tech billionaires.
In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that prior restraint — censorship — was permissible only to prevent serious breaches of national security, incitement to violence, and the publication of obscenity. It was Near to which the court looked in 1971 when it ruled that The New York Times and The Washington Post could resume publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.
Yet the rise of new doomsday technologies has put a crimp in Near. The latest example: efforts by a radical activist named Cody Wilson to publish blueprints on the internet describing how to use a 3D printer to produce an untraceable plastic gun. As I wrote for WGBH News several weeks ago, the case, based in Washington State, was reminiscent of one involving a left-wing magazine called The Progressive, which in 1979 sought to publish an article describing how to build a hydrogen bomb. In both instances, judges temporarily banned publication. The Progressive eventually published its article, and yet somehow we’re all still here.
Unfortunately U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik is allowing the muzzling of Wilson to drag on, ruling on Monday that the temporary restraining order he had put in place on July 31 would not be lifted until the case has been resolved. According to The New York Times, Lasnik ruled that Wilson’s First Amendment rights “are dwarfed by the irreparable harms the states are likely to suffer if the existing restrictions are withdrawn and that, over all, the public interest strongly supports maintaining the status quo through the pendency of this litigation.”
And yet, the Times continues, the plans Wilson wants to publish are already leaking out here and there, thus showing the futility of censorship.
Consider the humble newspaper editorial. Unsigned and often unread, these gray exercises in cautious chin-stroking — representing as they do the theoretically awesome power of the institution — assert, applaud, deplore, and urge. But only rarely do they leap off the screen or page and grab the reader by the throat.
For the past several years, though, The Boston Globe’s opinionators have been trying desperately to break free from that swirling vortex of irrelevance. A satirical front page imagining a Trump presidency drew applause, moans, and brickbats. More successfully, the paper published several digital editorials about gun violence that incorporated interactive data presentations and online tools for contacting elected officials. (Here’s the most recent example.)
Now the Globe has embarked on its most audacious campaign yet: a call for newspapers across the country to publish editorials this Thursday condemning President Trump’s repeated assertions that journalists are “the enemy of the American people” and purveyors of “fake news,” an outrageous tactic that has led to threats against reporters at Trump rallies. More than 200 papers have signed on so far. “This dirty war on the free press must end,” the Globe said in announcing the coordinated effort, which you can follow on Twitter at #EnemyOfNone.
The idea originated with Marjorie Pritchard, the Globe’s deputy editorial-page editor. She told me by email that she brought it up at a meeting of the editorial board (journalists who work for the opinion section) and got the go-ahead to begin contacting the editorial boards of other newspapers. Given the difficulty of changing anyone’s minds in this era of hyperpolarization, I asked her whether she thought the effort could truly make a difference. She took the optimistic view.
“This effort is an attempt to break through sides and remind everyone of the importance of a free press, no matter what their political preference is,” she said. “A free and independent press is one of the most sacred principles enshrined in the Constitution. It must remain so.”
The newspapers taking part will each write and publish their own editorials. “The impact of Trump’s assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston,” Pritchard wrote in announcing the campaign. “Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming.” That should at least partly counter any claims made by Trump supporters that the mainstream media are marching in lockstep with the Resistance to drive the president out of the White House. Still, there is a certain predictability regarding who’s for it and who’s against it.
In addition to the 200-plus newspapers that have responded to the Globe’s call, organizations such as the New England Newspaper and Press Association and the American Society of News Editors are lending their support. Last Friday on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” Tom Fiedler, the dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, gave the idea a hearty “rave.” For press advocates, the campaign is an opportunity to stand up for First Amendment values in the face of president who seeks to delegitimize journalism in the eyes of his followers.
But Trump-supporting media outlets have mocked the effort as the usual drivel from the usual suspects. “This is just another day at the office,” wrote Karen Townsend at Hot Air. “The press has never supported President Trump and both print and television network coverage has been grossly skewered [sic] negatively against him.” Over at Breitbart, John Nolte called the Globe a “far-left” outlet and, not surprisingly, turned the very fact that newspapers are working together on its head. “The bottom line,” Nolte said, “is that this coordinated attack coming from all corners of the establishment media only serves to validate the criticism coming from Trump and other media critics.”
In a sense, the effort is a perfect illustration of the dilemma facing the press right now. On the one hand, mainstream news organizations are attracting more subscriptions, donations, and readers. On the other hand, that increased interest is almost entirely restricted to opponents of Trump, as his supporters have gravitated to their own media ecosystem dominated by Fox News and Breitbart.
As someone who has written my share of unsigned editorials over the years, I doubt that more than a handful of hearts and minds are going to be changed on Thursday. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Journalism is under siege. Last week, incredibly, a new poll showed that 43 percent of Republicans believe the president should have the authority to shut down “news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
It’s time for us to stand up for our values and to remind the public of what the First Amendment is all about. What we’re not: perfect. What we are: an independent monitor of power, the absence of which would make this fraught moment infinitely worse.
Should a radical activist be allowed to publish instructions for using a 3D printer to create a fully operational plastic handgun? That’s the question facing U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik, who has said he will hear arguments this Friday in a case that pits freedom of speech against public safety.
The activist, Cody Wilson, has been trying to upload those plans for five years but had been prevented from doing so by the federal government. He nearly succeeded last month, after the State Department withdrew its objections. But Lasnik issued a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed by eight states and the District of Columbia. Although Lasnik, who’s based in Seattle, acknowledged that the case presented “serious First Amendment issues,” he said there was “a likelihood of irreparable harm” if Wilson — described as a “techno-anarchist” in a 2015 Wired magazine profile — had been allowed to move ahead.
If Wilson wins, it is easy to conjure up the evils that might result: an endless supply of untraceable guns that could be smuggled past metal detectors at airports and elsewhere and that could be printed out by thrill-seeking adolescents once 3D technology becomes sufficiently cheap and reliable. But as an equally fraught case from a generation ago demonstrates, the concerns raised by dilemmas like these invariably prove to be overblown.
In 1979, The Progressive, a small left-wing magazine based in Madison, Wisconsin, sought to publish an article on how to build a hydrogen bomb. The magazine claimed that Howard Morland, an Air Force pilot-turned-freelancer writer, had obtained the information entirely from public sources. The government argued that some of the information Morland used wasn’t publicly available, and that in any case he had pulled the information together in such a way that it could accelerate the process of rogue nations acquiring nuclear weapons.
Publishing instructions on how to build a nuke might not seem strictly necessary. But The Progressive’s editor, Erwin Knoll, defended his motives. In an essay he wrote when Morland’s article was finally published, he said the article was meant to spark debate. “We hope that debate will be a beginning — a beginning of a process in which all of the nuclear policies pursued by our Government will be held up to public scrutiny and review,” he wrote. “We hope that the process will end in a reversal of those policies and an end to the suicidal nuclear arms race in which we have been unwitting, uninformed participants.”
Like Judge Laskin in the plastic-handgun case, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Warren issued a temporary restraining order against The Progressive, arguing that the harm caused by censorship paled in comparison to the prospect of nuclear war. “A mistake in ruling against The Progressive will seriously infringe cherished First Amendment rights,” Warren wrote. But, he added portentously, “A mistake in ruling against the United States could pave the way for thermonuclear annihilation for us all. In that event, our right to life is extinguished and the right to publish becomes moot.”
In arriving at his decision, Warren relied on two Supreme Court precedents. In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the court identified a few narrow exceptions to the First Amendment prohibition on censorship — including a serious breach of national security, which Warren applied to the Morland article. In New York Times v. United States (1971), the court ruled that the Times and The Washington Post could publish the Pentagon Papers, the federal government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which would seem to cut against the government’s case regarding The Progressive. Warren, though, decided that the Pentagon Papers involved historical material rather than the possibility of future harm, and that The Progressive was also seeking to violate a specific federal law prohibiting the publication of atomic secrets.
Judge Warren was well aware of his responsibility as a guardian of the First Amendment, and he urged the two parties to come up with a voluntary agreement that would have allowed The Progressive to publish while omitting the most incendiary material. Before he could issue a final ruling, though, the matter was rendered moot when a newspaper in Madison published a letter containing substantially the same information as the Morland article. The case was dropped, and The Progressive published the Morland article under the headline “The H‐bomb secret: How we got it — why we’re telling it.”
The government’s and Judge Warren’s concerns proved to be unfounded. The information revealed by The Progressive has never been traced to the development of a nuclear weapon, even though terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS would love nothing better than to develop their own nukes. Building nuclear weapons involves a lot more than reading an article about it.
The threat posed by Cody Wilson’s plastic-handgun instructions is less existential but also more immediate. Though buying guns illegally (or stealing them) is easier than printing them out today, that is likely to change over the next few years. But the way to ensure public safety without violating the First Amendment is to outlaw activity, not speech. Plastic handguns are illegal unless they contain metal components. Guns without serial numbers are illegal.
“The distinction between regulating information about guns and regulating a tool that would automatically allow someone to manufacture a gun matters,” writes Boston University law professor Andrew Sellars at Slate. Echoing Erwin Knoll’s earlier argument, Sellars adds: “We protect speech so strongly under the First Amendment in part because we want to ensure unfettered discussion of policy matters.”
By temporarily preventing Wilson from publishing his blueprints, Judge Lasnik has already violated Wilson’s — and our — First Amendment rights. Let’s hope that on further reflection he comes to understand that when we try to ensure safety by suppressing free speech, we end up with neither.
It’s all about Trump. And so it should come as no surprise that the 2018 New England Muzzle Awards have taken on a distinctly orange hue, singling out — among other offenses — thuggish attempts by President Donald Trump and his minions to suppress speech they found embarrassing.
One of those coveted Muzzles is being presented to the president himself, who, through his lawyer, Michael Cohen, threatened a member of the Harvard Lampoon with expulsion over a harmless prank. The other goes to former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who raised the specter of a libel suit against a student who’d written a critical op-ed piece about The Mooch in the Tufts campus newspaper.
On a considerably lesser scale, former president Barack Obama should be on the lookout for a golden Muzzle in his mailbox as well. Earlier this year, Obama (or someone he was associated with) demanded that his remarks to several thousand people at a Boston conference on sports statistics, of all things, be kept off the record. Team Obama’s action was as absurd as it was inappropriate — and, as they learned, unenforceable as well.
Of course, the Muzzles encompass far more than presidential politics. This year’s winners range from Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans, who expressed unseemly pleasure that right-wing activists couldn’t be heard at a “Free Speech Rally” they had organized last August, to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, whose oft-stated commitment to open government is contradicted by her censorious interpretation of the state’s public-records law. For good measure, we single out two Rhode Island legislators who are pushing a priggish piece of legislation that has become known as the “internet porn tax.”
This year’s Muzzles are being awarded against a backdrop of fear and hatred whipped up by President Trump, whose cries of “fake news” have served to delegitimize the press among his followers and to undermine the First Amendment. Earlier this year it was learned that the White House had obtained the phone and email records of a New York Times journalist in secret, which denied her an opportunity to fight that order in court. More broadly, Trump triggered a humanitarian catastrophe with his policy of separating the families of undocumented immigrants when they try to enter the United States, calling into question the nation’s commitment to the rule of law. He eventually backed down, but the fate of the children who were taken away from their parents is still unclear — especially given his subsequent remark that undocumented immigrants should be turned away at the border without due process.
The Muzzle Awards, launched in 1998, were published for many years by the late, great Boston Phoenix, which ceased publication in 2013. This is the sixth 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 guiding principle behind the First Amendment is that we all have a right to be heard. It is up to each of us, of course, whether we choose to listen. But no one — not the government, and certainly not the giant corporations that control so much of our communications infrastructure — may prevent anyone’s speech from competing in “the marketplace of ideas.”
But now that the internet has become by far the most important and prevalent means for conveying free speech, the demise of the First Amendment may be at hand. If, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission votes on Dec. 14 to do away with net neutrality, then the distribution of news, information, and entertainment will become utterly dependent on the whims of internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast and Verizon. If you want your website to load quickly and be easily accessible, then you may have to pay a fee to the ISPs. And if you can’t afford it, well, too bad.
Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally — that ISPs shouldn’t be able to speed up some services that are willing to pay and slow down or even block others. A hot topic for many years, it was finally enacted as a binding rule by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. With President Trump now in charge, though, the FCC has a new Republican chair — former (and, no doubt, future) telecom lawyer Ajit Pai — and a three-to-two Republican majority.
Hypotheticals put forth by net-neutrality advocates tend to focus on non-journalistic scenarios. For instance, in 2004, according to a Daily Dot round-up of net-neutrality violations, a North Carolina telecom called Madison River Communications blocked Vonage as it was attempting to launch its voice-over-internet phone service. The problem, you see, was that Vonage threatened Madison River’s landline business. The FCC, then as now under Republican control, fined Madison River $15,000, which just goes to show that dog-eat-dog capitalism was not always a matter of GOP orthodoxy. In 2011, reports the media-reform organization Free Press, Verizon blocked the Google Wallet payment system so that it could promote its own software instead. There are plenty of other examples as well.
The threat to journalism posed by the end of net neutrality is also very real. Imagine that a major media corporation owns the largest television station and largest newspaper in a given market (now allowed thanks to the FCC’s recent decision to abolish the cross-ownership ban), and that it pays the telecoms a hefty fee to guarantee that its digital platforms will load quickly and play video flawlessly. How can, say, a small start-up news organization compete?
Or imagine a ban on certain types of content — as happened in 2007, when Verizon briefly blocked pro-abortion-rights text messages. As the St. Louis-based commentator Sarah Kendzior wrote Sunday in The Globe and Mail of Toronto:
The threat to net neutrality highlights the reliance on social media and an independent press for political organizing in the digital age. Should net neutrality be eliminated, those avenues will likely become curtailed for much of the public or driven out of business due to loss of revenue. Without the means to freely communicate online, citizens will be far less able to challenge the administration. It doesn’t matter what cause someone prioritizes: The elimination of net neutrality will impede the ability to understand the cause, discuss it and organize around it.
So what is to be done? At this point, it may seem hopeless. The FCC will repeal net neutrality, and that’s the end of it. But there are a few threads we can grasp onto.
For one thing, we are beginning to learn that many of the messages the FCC received in support of ending net neutrality were bot-generated fakes. It’s not clear exactly how many, but Eric Levitz reports in New York magazine that more than a million identical anti-net neutrality messages had a pornhub.com email address. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating, and has complained that the FCC is being uncooperative in turning over the documents he needs.
For another, it is possible that the legal system may intervene and keep net neutrality alive. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu wrote in The New York Times last week that “by going this far, the FCC may also have overplayed its legal hand. So drastic is the reversal of policy (if, as expected, the commission approves Mr. Pai’s proposal next month), and so weak is the evidence to support the change, that it seems destined to be struck down in court.”
Finally, it’s never over until it’s over. Last week Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times urging the public to speak out and stop the agency from voting for repeal. “Before my fellow FCC members vote to dismantle net neutrality, they need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly,” she said. “The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.”
Despite all this, it is more likely than not that the FCC will repeal net neutrality. What options will we then have? Perhaps a company with real financial power, such as Google or Amazon, will roll out its own network, with net neutrality guaranteed. All you would have to lose is your privacy, or what little remains of it. Or, as this Vice story recommends, we should encourage the development of local ISPs, including municipally owned systems. (Thanks to the indefatigable Saul Tannenbaum for sending me the link.)
It would all be so much easier, though, if the FCC did the right thing. If you favor keeping net neutrality, what is the best way of registering your views? The FCC website is a maze. But Free Press has started a petition urging Pai to cancel the Dec. 14 vote and leave net neutrality in place. As a journalist, I rarely take direct political action except in matters like this, where freedom of speech and of the press is at stake. I’ve signed, and I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.
Talk is cheap. If President Trump actually followed through on his multifarious threats against the First Amendment, then those of us who report and comment on the news would already be on our way to a detention camp — a beautiful detention camp, for sure — somewhere in the empty spaces of Oklahoma.
He has, after all, threatened to undo the laws that protect journalists from frivolous libel suits. He has said that he would revoke Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks in retaliation for the harsh coverage he’s gotten from The Washington Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has said that he may unleash a wave of subpoenas that would force reporters to identify anonymous leakers. And just recently, Trump demanded a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into media organizations that report what he calls “fake news” and suggested that the broadcast licenses held by NBC should be revoked.
But Trump in theory and Trump in practice are two entirely different things. Though his anti-press rhetoric can be frightening at times, his follow-through has been pretty much nonexistent. Meanwhile, as First Amendment expert Jameel Jaffer says, Trump could legitimately if inadvertently lay claim to presiding over “the most transparent administration in history,” to invoke a solemn promise by Barack Obama that unfortunately preceded eight years of stonewalling on public records as well as an unprecedented crackdown on leakers.
“To say that the Trump administration leaks like a sieve would be very unfair to sieves,” Jaffer said Tuesday evening at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Moreover, Trump’s Twitter feed — he has tweeted more than 2,000 times since Election Day — offers a look into “the unvarnished presidential id,” Jaffer said, quoting Nixon biographer John Farrell.
Jaffer, currently the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, had previously served as deputy legal director for the ACLU. His work on a lawsuit aimed at shaking loose documents from the George W. Bush administration resulted in the publication of the so-called torture memos — the legal rationale produced by the White House to justify waterboarding and other inhumane tactics used in questioning terrorism suspects.
Despite Jaffer’s backhanded praise for Trump, he is hardly sanguine. For one thing, he noted, Trump’s tweets come at us in such volume that they distract us and distort the public discourse. “We should be careful not to mistake noise for transparency,” he said. In addition, seeming openness in one realm is often used to mask efforts to cover up information elsewhere. For instance, the White House recently released an eight-minute video on its efforts to deal with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico while simultaneously removing statistics related to the relief effort from government websites.
Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the press — including his references to news organizations as “the enemy of the American people” — need to be taken seriously as well, Jaffer said. He called those attacks “an assault on transparency” aimed at undermining faith in the media, calling into question even “provable truths.” The effect, he said, is to replace journalists with Trump himself as the arbiter of what is true and false. And at least among his strongest supporters, he’s had some success. For instance, a Morning Consult/Politico poll released on Wednesday found that 46 percent of those surveyed “believe major news organizations fabricate stories about Trump.” That proportion rises to a stunning 76 percent among Republicans. (For a full breakdown, click here and turn to page 146.)
“If this is transparency at all,” Jaffer said, “it is transparency we should distrust and interrogate rather than applaud.”
My own fear — and I think Jaffer would agree — is that Trump has stirred up such hatred for the media (not that we were ever popular) that basic press protections could be in danger. Yes, you can believe that the courts will protect us; Trump’s Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whatever his other shortcomings, seems as likely to support a robust First Amendment as his colleagues. But as Charles Pierce recently noted at Esquire.com, we are closer than you might think to the unthinkable prospect of a constitutional convention at which everything would be up for grabs, including the Bill of Rights. I do not assume that basic constitutional guarantees would survive in the current environment.
As I said, talk is cheap. But talk such as Trump’s cheapens the public discourse, giving people permission to indulge their hatreds and prejudices. We’re already seeing it happen.
At the end of Jaffer’s lecture, he was asked what makes him hopeful in this dark time. His response: The outpouring of protest against the racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, including tens of thousands of people in Boston who demonstrated against hate. “It’s a great relief to me to see people coalescing around this stuff,” he said.
So is Trump a threat or a menace to the First Amendment? I think it’s important to separate Trump’s words from his actions. To this point, at least, the president’s anti-media rhetoric has had no more effect than his attacks on Obamacare (dismantledlast Thursday; revived with his support on Tuesday), or his ever-shifting views on tax cuts. My philosophy: Keep a close ear out for what he says — but don’t panic until he actually does something.
I’ve been trying to think through what would change if the First Amendment were as untouchable as the Second. I’m sure this is an incomplete list, but here are a few ideas that come to mind:
Child pornography would be legal. It might still be illegal to make it because of the horrific child abuse it would entail. But sell, distribute or possess it? No problem.
Obscenity in general would be legal. This is a very slippery concept, and in fact it is difficult to know exactly what would be considered obscene circa 2017. But depictions of bestiality or rape would be fine. As with child pornography, it’s possible that someone could be prosecuted for the underlying acts, but not for selling, distributing or possessing it.
Libel would cease to exist. Want to publish something false and defamatory about someone? Go for it. And don’t worry about whether she’s a private figure. That distinction is so 20th-century.
If the United States is at war, and you somehow come into possession of plans detailing the specifics of an operation against enemy troops, well, go ahead and publish them. Under our new, absolutist First Amendment, Col. Robert McCormick did nothing wrong.
If you’re, say, a Ku Klux Klan leader, and you exhort a mob to lynch a black man standing at the periphery of the crowd, and they do it, you have nothing to worry about. The criminals who actually carry out the deed could be prosecuted for murder, of course, but under an absolutist view of the First Amendment there would be no such thing as incitement.
No rational person, of course, would support any of these changes to the First Amendment. Even someone who considers himself pretty much an absolutist, as I do, has to acknowledge that not every single form of expression can be protected by the Constitution. So why can’t extreme gun-rights advocates see that they’ve abandoned all rationality?