Trump vs. the First Amendment


Yes, we know. Yet another article about Trump. Trust us, no one is more sick of that orange-faced, small-handed buffoon than us. But as painful it is to write that name once more, it would be a serious mistake to allow his most recent hypocrisy to pass without comment. Though Trump has shown he is willing to play fast and loose with issues as appalling as deportation and torture, Trump has recently turned his sights on what might be the scariest target yet: the freedom of the press.

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win … is open up our libel laws so when [newspapers] write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” he said.

Unfortunately for Trump, freedom of the press is not simply a law, it’s enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The rules regarding libel have been determined by the Supreme Court, and as president, he would have few legal options to alter them.

Still, it is concerning to imagine a president who doesn’t respect basic civil rights. Trump has a long history with the media. In recent weeks, he has called reporters “disgusting” people and has denied press passes to numerous journalists from outlets such as Politico and Huffington for writing critical articles of him. Even before his presidential campaign, he was notorious for resorting (unsuccessfully) to libel lawsuits against those who criticized him, including one reporter who questioned his wealth.

The irony in this is that Trump owes much of his current political success to the First Amendment. Throughout the campaign, Trump has shown a willingness to say absolutely anything. His bombastic speech is a fundamental aspect (some would say the only aspect) of his campaign. He portrays himself as being the only candidate who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is,” regardless of who he offends. He rails against what he considers to be “censorship” from “politically correct” liberals. And the tactic is working; comments that would leave other candidates’ presidential hopes dead in the water have bought Trump in the national spotlight and propelled him to the top of the GOP race.

As a controversial figure, Trump benefits from the rights afforded to him by the First Amendment. Though we often prefer to take a nobler view of our civil rights, the freedom of speech is applied indiscriminately without regards to content. It encompasses areas of expression we may be less comfortable with, such as hate speech. This gives Trump the license to spout his openly bigoted sentiments towards minorities and foreigners without consequence.

But over the past few weeks, his antics have taken a turn for the worse. He has upped the rhetoric and theatrics of his rallies, intensifying an already frenzied run. In response, protestors have disrupted, delayed and even cancelled his campaign events. Trump has come under fire for encouraging violence against these people. He has made several provocative comments, such as when he evoked the “old days” when there were “consequences” for protestors. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said of one man. He has even promised to pay the legal fees of anyone accused of assaulting a protestor.

Though alarming, this falls somewhat short of criminal behavior. According to the Supreme Court, a person can only be charged with inciting violence if they call for a specific illegal act that is immediate and causes serious harm. After a supporter sucker-punched a protestor at a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina and later threatened to kill him, law enforcement agencies reportedly considered charging Trump but chose to back down. Most legal experts agree that his statements — so far — would likely qualify as legally protected speech in court.

This hypocrisy on the First Amendment is completely characteristic of Trump. He uses the freedom of speech as a shield for naked racism and xenophobia, but is much less tolerant of what others have to say—especially if they’re critical of him. Like a schoolyard bully, he’ll mock opponents for everything down to their physical features, but is entirely sensitive to criticism himself.

It is difficult to condemn Trump without delving into hyperbole. But even the most sober assessment reveals some extremely troubling trends about Trump’s behavior. This is a man who believes in deporting millions of immigrants and creating a registration database for an entire religion. He actively condones racism and violence at his rallies. He is hostile towards protestors and journalists that criticize him, and openly desires to change the laws to allow him to prosecute them. If his campaign rhetoric in any way matches his political aspirations, it is not an exaggeration to think we are encountering something that approaches authoritarian rule.

A free press is the cornerstone of a free democracy. With the elections growing closer every day, our choice becomes clear: We must speak out against Trump’s behavior now or risk losing our ability to speak out at all.

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