Shackling of the Press

If you were watching the testimony from FBI Director James Comey, you likely focused on his confirmation that his agency is investigating the Trump campaign team for ‘collusion’ with Russian intelligence and hacking efforts.

After all, another way to say ‘collusion with Russian intelligence’ is the word ‘treason’.

The political firestorm following Comey’s testimony has, however, obscured another frightening truth.

Simply put, your freedom to say what you want, and for the media to report truthfully, is under attack in America. If certain politicians have their way, your ability to freely criticize the government could be curtailed.

Saying something negative about Donald Trump could potentially see the government suing you and taking away your home and your life savings.

Think it can’t happen? Well, consider the events of the first 60 days of the Trump presidency.

What you may have missed during the RussiaGate hearing was the effort by Republican Senator Trey Gowdy and President Donald Trump to shift the discussion over to the role of the media.

The same morning Comey testified, Trump used his by-now infamous Twitter account to say the real issue is not whether his campaign team committed treason, but whether the people leaking that information to the media should be prosecuted.

“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!” he said.

It is true that leaking confidential information on an investigation is, in fact, illegal. That’s why investigative journalists go to extreme lengths to protect the anonymity of their sources.

What is more concerning is the campaign by Trump, Gowdy and other Republican allies to curtail the freedom of the press.

During the hearing Gowdy focused not on the serious issue of possible treason and Russian espionage, but on the role of the media in exposing the possibility of treason.

He clearly implied that reporters who published classified material should be prosecuted, and subjected to imprisonment for up to 10 years under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“Is there an exception in the law for reporters who want to break a story?” he asked Comey.

“I thought it was against the law to disseminate classified information,” said Gowdy.

(The hypocrisy here is that Gowdy is most famous for chairing the committee that investigated the terrorist attack in Benghazi. That committee famously leaked volumes of confidential information to the media, information highly damaging to then-President Barack Obama. For some reason, Gowdy seemed much less concerned about those leaks).

As Comey pointed out, there is no exemption reporting reporters from being prosecuted under FISA, but he also pointed out no reporter has ever been prosecuted under that Act.

The reason is simple.

It’s called the First Amendment, which guarantees both Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of the Press.

It states in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In other words, Americans have the right to criticize the government, to report honestly, and to hold the government to account.

Now, the rights of Americans and American journalists are under attack.

Gowdy’s comments alone might not be cause for concern, but they were uttered in concert with a campaign by the White House to both smear the press, and if possible, to curtail the media’s ability to freely publish stories critical of the government.

President Donald Trump has been attacking the press on two fronts. The first is to convince the public that reporters are liars and deliberately mislead the public with ‘fake news’.

This tactic has been surprisingly successful in the US, and truly has convinced many people the media can’t be trusted.

The irony is that reporters in reputable news organizations are absolutely required to seek and tell the truth. If a reporter lies, he or she will be fired. Journalism is the only profession that has the sole purpose of finding and telling the truth.

But instead, people place their faith in … Donald Trump? Really?

Trump’s second offensive comes with the idea that he can change libel laws, making it easier for governments to sue news outlets for stories they don’t like.

Right now, journalists are protected from libel suits if they act honestly and without malice, and faithfully report facts and the opinions of the people they interview.

Trump’s plan to remove First Amendment protections for journalists could see government using its immense power to simply drive news outlets out of existence with a series of expensive lawsuits.

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win, … is I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said.

This actually happened back in 1931, when the Minnesota legislature passed a statute allowing courts to shut down “malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspapers. The statute only allowed a “…defense of truth only in cases where the truth had been told “with good motives and for justifiable ends.”

This is the same type of law the White House wants today, and it is chilling.

Fortunately, the US Supreme Court shut down that undemocratic law in the case Near vs. Minnesota, stating, “”The impairment of the fundamental security of life and property by criminal alliances and official neglect emphasizes the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press”.

It happened again when, in the 1960s, several state governments repeatedly sued out of state newspapers for defamation, hoping the weight of the lawsuits would stop criticism of civil rights abuses against African-Americans.

Again, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of the press under the First Amendment.

But today, instead of upholding the US Constitution, as he has sworn to do, Trump has described the press as an “enemy of the people.”

Many people might not care about the problems faced by the press. Many people don’t even like the news media, nor do they trust the news media. And most people probably think a bun fight between the president and the media doesn’t affect them.

But it does.


Libel laws don’t just affect the media. In fact, the media currently have more protections than you do.

Today, hundreds of millions of people publish their opinions on Facebook, Twitter, in the comments sections of online media sites, or on a blog.

All of those are being read and tracked by the NSA’s scarily efficient monitoring systems.

If for any reason the government started to see you as a threat, as someone gaining a following, you could be easily shut down – and financially ruined – under Trump’s proposed defamation laws.

Such lawsuits can run into the millions of dollars. In fact, the Gawker news site was sued into bankruptcy by former pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan.

If Trump gets his way, the presidency and in fact all levels of government will receive a powerful tool to crush dissent by suing not just media outlets, but anyone who dares criticize them.

It is, in fact, a common tool to crush dissent when authoritarian governments take over a democratic country. The first thing they do is attack the press, just as Hitler did.

The fact that Trump’s supporters took to shouting the term ‘Lügenpresse’ at reporters is even scarier.

That’s the same term the Nazis used to describe reporters when they took over Germany and shut down opposition newspapers.

The US government’s assault on the news media isn’t just an attack on freedom of the press. It’s an assault on freedom of speech as well.

That’s a huge concern for Americans, but for other countries as well.

Just last month the Committee to Protect Journalists warned Trump’s assault on the First Amendment is affecting press freedoms globally because it “sends a signal to other countries that it is OK to verbally abuse journalists and undermine their credibility.”

The message, unfortunately, is pretty clear from the first 60 days of the Trump presidency. If the press and ordinary citizens want to keep their right to free speech, they’re going to have to fight for them … just as their ancestors did in the American Revolution.

During the Revolution, the rebel Virginia state legislature first penned the words that would later lead to America’s Freedom of the Press provisions: “The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.”

In the first months of the Trump presidency, those are words to consider seriously.

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