It’s been a rough few weeks for people practicing the First Amendment with Donald Trump in the White House. Here are some case examples from the last month:
• On April 30, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl asked Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, about whether the Trump administration was going to follow through on Trump’s campaign promise to start “opening up libel laws” to make it easier to sue journalists. To do that would require a constitutional amendment to rewrite James Madison’s handiwork in the First Amendment. Priebus’ response was, “I think it’s something that we’ve looked at.”
• On May 9, Dan Heyman, a reporter for West Virginia’s Public News Service, was handcuffed, arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, “willful disruption of governmental processes.” He was booked, had his mugshot taken and was briefly jailed. He was released on a $5,000 bond. The crime that prompted his arrest? Shouting a question to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in a hallway in the state Capitol in Charleston.
• On Tuesday, protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington were beaten up, allegedly by security guards for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Video showed protesters being kicked and stomped, sometimes in the head. Eleven people were injured, including a D.C. police officer. Two men were arrested, and police are seeking more suspects — though if they are members of Ergodan’s security detail, they may have diplomatic immunity. The Trump administration has stayed silent on the violence in the nation’s capital.
• Also Tuesday, in The New York Times’ bombshell story about then-FBI Director James Comey being asked by Trump to lay off the investigation over Russian meddling in the 2016 election, there was this disturbing tidbit: Trump, an associate of Comey’s said, told Comey to think about putting reporters in prison for publishing classified data. Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, told The Times that Trump’s request was “an act of intimidation.”
• On Wednesday, after a speech to the graduating class of the Coast Guard Academy in which he complained about his treatment by the media, Donald Trump was presented with a ceremonial saber. With the mic still on, John Kelly, Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, joked to Trump, “Use that on the press, sir.” Trump laughed.
Each of these examples, in isolation, would be troubling coming from “the leader of the free world,” as we often call the president of the United States. But these are just the latest examples of a clear pattern of disrespect and distrust from a man who has called the press an “enemy of the people.”
PEN America, the human-rights organization that defends writers, recently issued a report detailing the attacks on the press in the first 100 days Trump has been in office. For lovers of free expression and good journalism, it reads like something by Stephen King.
In the report, PEN America listed 76 instances of Trump or his people undermining the press — by attacking either the media in general or specific outlets as “fake news,” or by restricting access to government officials. The administration has placed gag orders on government employees, threatening them with their jobs if they talk to reporters.
Other actions don’t just affect journalists, PEN America reports. The administration has removed information from government websites. It has accused people at marches, rallies and town halls of being paid professionals, an effort to delegitimize peaceful protest. It requires travelers to give U.S. border agents access to their electronic devices, including passwords to their social media — which could have a chilling effect on free expression.
The reason these attacks from Trump are so dangerous is the same reason the Founding Fathers made the press the one profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. It’s because without a free press, vigorously keeping a check on the government, there would be no democracy — and no United States of America.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket. Email him at email@example.com.