Troubled Times for the First Amendment

Attacks on Free Speech, Free Press, on the Rise

Posted by Dale Eisman on May 19, 2017

Millions of Americans don’t care very much for the press. Journalists are too liberal or too conservative; they trade in fake news and miss the real important stories; they profit from the misfortune of others.

The complaints are legion – and often warranted – but freedom of the press and its constitutional sibling, freedom of speech, also are indispensable to American democracy. It’s no coincidence that when the Constitution’s authors crafted the initial amendments to that document, the freedoms of speech and the press were part of the First Amendment.

So every American ought to be on the alert for threats to First Amendment freedoms and troubled anytime First Amendment rights are violated. Unfortunately, threats and violations are both on the rise:

  • On Thursday in Washington, veteran correspondent John M. Donnelly was pinned against a wall by security guards and then ejected from the Federal Communications Commission as he attempted to question FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. Donnelly was wearing his press credential and carrying a notebook and tape recorder when guards came between him and O’Rielly and then pushed him against the wall as O’Rielly walked away. The commissioner later apologized.
  • Elsewhere in Washington on Tuesday, Turkish security personnel assigned to that country’s president assaulted peaceful demonstrators in front of the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Thanks to diplomatic immunity, apparently none of the Turks will be prosecuted.
  • Also on Tuesday, the New York Times reported on a memo in which fired FBI Director James Comey recounted a conversation in which President Trump urged him to consider prosecuting and imprisoning reporters for disclosing government secrets.
  • Last week, in Charleston, W.VA, Public News Service reporter Dan Heyman was arrested in the state capitol as he attempted to question Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. Heyman is a familiar figure around the capitol but Capitol Police hauled him off and slapped him with a charge that carries a fine of up to $100 and up to six months in jail.
  • Since February, Martin Mendez Pineda, a Mexican journalist seeking asylum in the U.S. after an article he wrote on police misconduct in his home country triggered death threats, has been jailed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Texas. His lawyer says authorities claim they cannot release Pineda because he "does not have substantial ties to the community." In fact, he has received offers of help from residents of El Paso, including one from a priest who has put his residence at Pineda’s disposal, and journalism and press freedom organizations which have expressed concern over his detention, and have rallied for his release.
  • In New York State, a pair of Democratic state legislators this year introduced “right to be forgotten” legislation that would require internet search engines and other websites to remove information about an individual when a judge or jury determines it is “no longer material to current public debate or discourse.” The bill makes exceptions for information “related to convicted felonies” or “legal matters relating to violence” in which the subject played a “central and substantial” role.
  • Perhaps taking a cue from President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on demonstrators at his campaign rallies last year, Republican legislators in at least 18 states have introduced bills to curb protests. The Washington Post reported in February that the legislation includes proposals to increase punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who strike protesters with their cars and, in at least once case, seize the assets of people involved in protests that later turn violent. None of the bills have been passed.

By themselves, each of these events can be dismissed as fleeting breaches of America’s traditional devotion to First Amendment freedoms. Taken together, they may be something far worse. Our president has dramatically escalated the usual tension between journalists and government officials. Well before his reported suggestion that Comey intensify prosecution of reporters, Trump labeled the press an “enemy of the people;” one of his closest advisers, Stephen Bannon, has openly suggested the media “should keep its mouth shut.”

Perhaps most telling is this year’s report from Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based nonprofit group that monitors press freedom worldwide. Noting that with Trump’s election the First Amendment is under increasing attack, the organization rated the U.S. 43rd among 180 nations in the strength of its free press protections, down from 41st in 2016.

The U.S. finished well behind every nation in Scandinavia and western Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and a dozen others around the world. Not exactly where one would expect to find “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”


Office: Common Cause National

Issues: More Democracy Reforms

Tags: Democracy Scorecard

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