There is a reason the architects of the Bill of Rights included freedom of the press and speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — our democratic republic couldn’t survive without them.
James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the nation knew public officials had to be held accountable, and the free flow of information from citizens and journalists provided the best way for that to happen.
That’s why it is so abhorrent to hear Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attack and threaten the press – and, by extension, the public, who count on the news media to serve as their eyes and ears.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, is no friend of a free press and free speech, either. But Trump represents a clear and present danger to the public’s right to know. He wants never to be challenged, or even questioned, by a free press or the speech of his critics.
He wants you to take everything he says at face value. When journalists or his critics don’t, he resorts to name-calling and worse. He mocked a New York Times reporter by making fun of his disability and referenced another’s menstrual cycle.
Trump also bans reporters he dislikes from covering his campaign events. He’s also threatened to make journalists and citizens an easy target for lawsuits by weakening the First Amendment’s libel standard.
The standard requires public officials and public figures to prove that spoken or published statements they consider damaging to their reputations were deliberate, reckless falsehoods motivated by malice.
Trump would lower that standard to make it easy for him and other politicians and public figures to sue regardless of truth or intent – a proposal directly in conflict with the purpose of the First Amendment.
His aim is to bully detractors into submission. That is the tactic of a tyrant, and a common practice in autocratic governments such as Iran, Russia and China. Dare to speak or write ill of the government, and the punishment is prison or death.
Free press and free speech serve a vital role in our free society. Pursuit of the truth makes dishonest politicians and public officials uncomfortable and angry. Their usual defense is to blame the messenger because they dislike the message.
It was the role of the free press and a whistle blower that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency. Had the free press been silenced, Nixon would have gotten away with covering up the Watergate scandal.
Trump frequently bashes the media that gave him millions of dollars in free publicity during the Republican primary season. He does not like it when journalists report his campaign missteps or controversial statements that trigger public backlash.
Yet that is the responsibility of the press. It also extends to the vigorous reporting on candidate Clinton’s email fiasco and Clinton Foundation donor conflicts during her term as U.S. Secretary of State.
Clinton doesn’t like the stories and commentary about her either but so far she has not blamed the press, called it the lowest form of humanity or suggested a publish-and-perish modification of the First Amendment.
Put simply, Donald Trump doesn’t understand the overarching value of a free press and free speech to a free society.
This editorial appeared in the
Muskogee, Okla., Phoenix.