Free press, free people

Published Aug. 2018

SCPA Attorney Jay Bender
By SCPA Attorney Jay Bender

Donald J. Trump is a bully and a thug.  I could tell you he is a liar, but you and everyone else in America—even his Republican minions in Congress, know that already.

Trump’s political career began on the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.  On the second day of his presidency he sent his press secretary, a public employee, out to lie about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.  The lies have become more frequent and more indefensible in the months that have followed.

The biggest and most dangerous lie to slither from Trump’s lips is that the press is the enemy of the people.

Because Trump has no knowledge of or interest in history, he does not understand that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted to protect the press, and the audience served by the press, from the officially sanctioned news favored by a tyrant—King George III.

All news inconsistent with Trump’s egocentric world view is labeled by him as “fake news,” and the reporters and editors who take personal and professional pride in accuracy and fairness are labeled “the enemy of the people.”  Both elements of Trump’s assertion are lies.

Historically such leaders as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recognized that our democratic republic would be served best by a press free from governmental control.  During the presidential campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson pro-Jefferson newspaper editors were jailed and prosecuted for publishing material critical of Adams and his administration.  Even in the face of such repression the press continued to publish.  The law which supported those governmental acts against the press was never tested in the United States Supreme Court; however, in its 1964 opinion in the crucial First Amendment case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court noted that criticism of official conduct does not lose its constitutional protection “merely because it is effective criticism.”

In his concurring opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States Justice Hugo Black of Alabama said, “The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.  Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Trump’s affinity for dictators and strongmen is well documented.  His commitment to his oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, including its First Amendment, is invisible.  The press envisioned by Trump would be based on the models of Russia’s Pravda and China’s Xinhua—official propaganda arms of those respective totalitarian regimes.

You might be a supporter of Trump, you might be in the opposition, or you might be neutral.  Regardless, you should be offended by a President who incites his supporters at rallies to hurl threats at the reporters who are there to cover the event.

Consider this updated parable:  I didn’t speak out when they came for the Jews, I didn’t speak out when they came for the blacks, I didn’t speak out when they came for the gays, I didn’t speak out when they came for the Mexicans, I didn’t speak out when they came for immigrant children, I didn’t speak out when they came for the press.  Who will be left to speak out when they come for me?

Jay Bender is a retired University of South Carolina professor and media lawyer who represents the S.C. Press Association and its newspapers.

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