On January 11, President Trump made an infamous comment about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, asking why the United States lets in “people from shithole countries.” With this remark came a downpour of disbelief and condemnation across bipartisan lines. Rep. Mia Love (R-UT) stated that these comments were “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values.” Alix Desulme, a city council member in North Miami, stated, “It’s disheartening that someone who is the leader of the free world would use such demeaning language to talk about other folks, referring to folks of color.”
Despite the widespread criticism that the comments garnered, upon retrospection, the incident certainly does not seem like an isolated case, but rather the latest development in Trump’s longstanding history of making similarly controversial and racially charged remarks both before and during his presidency. For example, he was, and perhaps still remains, a prominent advocate for the conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama questioning whether or not he was born in the United States.
As president, both Trump and his administration have also promoted various inaccuracies and falsehoods, including those related to the size of the crowd at his inaugural, the legitimacy of the past election, and the validity of the investigation into possible collusion between his administration and the Russian government. Kellyanne Conway, in perhaps the most memorable interview for the adviser, called former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statistics on the crowd at Trump’s inauguration “alternative facts.”
Despite his many claims being proven false multiple times, one cannot deny that Trump has truly has taken advantage of his right to freedom of speech. In fact, the First Amendment has played a large role in his administration thus far, as it seems to have a dual attitude towards it. Clearly, Trump enjoys certain benefits guaranteed under the amendment, particularly his ability to express his own ideas and opinions regardless of their validity or implications. He has also protected certain others’ right to do so. Particularly, his defense of the white supremacists at the Charlottesville protests last August seemed at least partially grounded in a belief in the right of the protestors to congregate and express their beliefs.
However, despite his dependence on this right, his administration has also been characterized by doubt and hostility towards many others’ freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and particularly the American people’s right to petition the government and express dissent.
Trump has previously expressed his belief that people who burn the American flag should have their citizenship revoked or be punished with a year in prison. He has also blocked countless Twitter users for criticizing or mocking him, prompting the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to file a lawsuit against him, accusing him of actively suppressing dissent. In addition, when Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim United States soldier, criticized Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from immigrating, the President said in a statement that Khan had “no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things.”
Perhaps most indicative of Trump’s dual relationship with freedom of speech is his criticism of the NFL players that have protested police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. Calling the players “sons of bitches,” he called on the NFL to suspend or fire the players who protested, accusing them of disrespecting the flag and the anthem. Defenders of the protests argue that the players are exercising their right to silently protest.
Besides questioning individuals’ freedom of speech, Trump’s candidacy and presidency have been marked by an antagonism towards the media, calling the news industry the “enemy of the American people” and condemning networks like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN for spreading “fake news.” With the release of the new Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury, Trump has threatened to change libel laws to enable more people to sue publishers and news organizations. He has also threatened to cancel the broadcast licenses of media companies that happened to have provided negative coverage of him, even those whose licenses are not under his purview. For example, after NBC published a report stating that the president had made a request for a tenfold increase in nuclear weapons, Trump tweeted, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” He has also stated at a news conference alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
Trump has also called for the firing of specific reporters that have covered negative stories about him or have criticized him. He had the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, call on ESPN to fire Jemele Hill, who had referred to him as a “white supremacist” on Twitter. After CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny challenged Trump’s claim that widespread voter fraud is what cost him in the popular vote in the 2016 election, Trump retweeted tweets condemning both the reporter and the network. At a press conference earlier in the year, Trump refused to call on CNN reporter Jim Acosta, telling him, “You are fake news,” referring to the network.
The promotion of suspicion towards the news industry is by no means unanimously shared throughout the government; various senators have spoken out against Trump’s anti-media rhetoric. Most recently, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) gave a scathing speech on the Senate floor criticizing Trump’s disregard for truth and free expression. Referring to Trump’s calling the media “the enemy of the people”, he stated that “it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies.” Flake also warned against a rising tide of authoritarian tendencies, arguing, “No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account.”
To the same effect, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) wrote a piece for The Washington Post called “Mr. President, stop attacking the press” discussing the implications of such an attitude towards journalists and news networks. He argues that by setting this example, other governments are more likely to follow suit, with nations like Russia, Turkey, China, Egypt, and Venezuela already restricting their own people’s freedoms by discrediting what news networks say, imprisoning reporters, passing legislation that supposedly prevents “fake news”, and taking advantage of this lack of scrutiny to commit human rights violations. He ends the piece, “Only truth and transparency can guarantee freedom.”The question the American people are now faced with is whether or not the current relationship between the government and the media is ideal or even acceptable. Trump’s attitude towards free speech and the freedom of the press has proven to be dual in nature, with those freedoms allowing him to share controversial opinions and factual fallacies but simultaneously bringing into question others’ right to express their own beliefs, especially those who express dissent towards him. Free speech is necessary for a democracy to function, as it allows the people to keep their leaders in check and protects the integrity of truth. As Sen. Flake stated in his speech, “Despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy.” Now more than ever, the strength of our democratic institutions is being tested, and we need to remember the possible repercussions of failing to value and protect them.