“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or 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.”
—First Amendment to the Constitution (1791)
According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report for 2016, press freedom worldwide has declined to its lowest point in 15 years. According to the report, only 13% of the world’s population enjoys a free press. From the heinous attack on Charlie Hebdo to state-sponsored censorship in China to violence committed against journalists covering organized crime in Mexico, it’s clear that journalists are increasingly hindered around the globe. Lest we become complacent, it is important to note that the U.S. only ranks at number 41.
Against that backdrop, it’s especially concerning when Donald Trump says that “70 to 75% of it (media) is absolutely dishonest, absolute scum.” And, he hasn’t stopped there. He mocked a disabled reporter. And, when a reporter asked him a tough question about the alleged funds he raised for veterans’ groups, Trump’s response was to call him “a sleaze.” It would be one thing if this was just bluster. But, Trump has advocated for the re-opening of libel laws so “we can sue (news organizations) and win lots of money.”
To understand what Trump wants to do, you only have to look across the Atlantic at the British libel laws. In order to bring a libel suit in the U.S., a person must prove that the published work was false. However, in the U.K., the onus is on journalists and reporters to prove their claims are true in court, which costs substantial time and money. This creates a chilling effect on reporting and free speech especially with regard to rich and powerful people or organizations.
In 2014, Cambridge University Press said it wouldn’t release a book critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the U.K. because it feared being sued. John Haslam, Executive Publisher at Cambridge University Press noted in a letter to the author that “the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.” More recently, HBO declined to release Going Clear—a documentary about the Church of Scientology—in Britain because of the high costs associated with defending against a libel suit. There are also cases of whistleblowers like Peter Wilmshurst being taken to court by a pharmaceutical company. Wilmshurst, a cardiologist, took issue with the science supporting a specific cardiac drug. When he proposed to publish data from his experiments, he was sued for libel in an attempt to repress his findings. He successfully defended against the suit, but only after years in court and much cost to him.
Trump hasn’t offered any specifics about his plan to amend libel laws here in the U.S., but his stated goal of being able to “sue and win lots of money” suggests that he would go at least as far as Britain’s laws. And, to be fair, Trump isn’t the only one working to undermine press freedoms. The rich and powerful often want less criticism of their actions. For these reasons, the Founding Fathers made the First Amendment clear: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This fundamental and important boundary for government is essential to the free flow of ideas and leads to an informed public.
In 1804, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter that “Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him (man) all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”
Nelson Mandela echoed these sentiments in 1994: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”
America should strive to serve as an example of freedom and democracy. We should resist efforts to rein in the press by politicians who are either thin-skinned or trying to hide something. We should support the work of media organizations to shine a light on uncomfortable truths. We should applaud journalists who hold people in power accountable—not make it easier for wealthy individuals, government institutions, corporations and elected officials to silence their critics. Without a strong and independent press, we are less likely to hear opposite points of view—already a problem in American politics. We are more susceptible to demagogues, who feed on false information and half-truths. Without a free and vibrant press, the quality of our public debate will diminish, our political leaders will run unchecked and our democracy will suffer.