Free Press

No, Trump Won't Change the First Amendment, But It Matters That People Want To

Government censorship always wears the mask of 'public interest,' and this will be no different.

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Trump Rally
Andrew Lichtenstein/Polaris/Newscom

President Donald Trump's willingness to alter the terms of the First Amendment as part of his desire to censor critical press of him is firmly established: See his constant complaints of "fake news" (to be fair, his complaints are sometimes correct) and his desire to "open up libel laws." The president has no direct influence over the content of libel laws because they're state-level laws. There are many pivotal Supreme Court rulings on the relationship between libel laws and the First Amendment protections of free speech and a free press. Trump would have to rewrite the First Amendment in order to get what he wants.

Trump is not going to be altering the First Amendment. Let's just start with that. Even if he weren't an extremely divisive president, it would be quite the uphill battle. But it is worth taking note at how establishment officials looking to maintain influence within the Trump administration respond. It's worth separating out what is possible from what is likely.

The coverage of Sunday interview between ABC's Jonathan Karl and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on This Week seems designed for the purpose of keeping this fight between Trump and the press on front burner, as if the president's absence from the White House Correspondents Dinner and counter-rally didn't already have that effect.

Priebus knows that Trump isn't changing anything about the First Amendment and that there will be no changes to libel laws in the near future. But he is not willing to say that. He can't. He won't. So during his Sunday interview with Karl he says "It's something we've looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story."

We don't know what "looked at" means (perhaps a Google search of pages that explain state libel laws?), but some media analysts are concerned about the implications that this might actually happen. It probably won't, but the media benefits from playing up this conflict as much as Trump does.

Let's take a look at where that conversation shifted after talking about libel laws, because that's where I'd rather we were paying attention. Trump has also said he would like to criminalize flag-burning, which Priebus also vaguely defended in a similar fashion. There is a lot of popular support for laws against burning flags, though when truly pressed, a majority of Americans tend to come down against a constitutional amendment. The wording of the poll question matters.

Trump is not alone in his desire to change the First Amendment in ways that benefit his particular world view, and if nothing else, his efforts should be use as an object lesson. Priebus complains that the press has been irresponsible in its reporting. This is not a new complaint from government officials targeting the press. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the New York Times itself (a noted Trump target) hosted commentary by Michael Kinsley suggesting there needed to be some sort of oversight over what the press was allowed to publish.

Americans have a remarkable facility for looking for exceptions to the First Amendment and deciding that some controversial or unpleasant statements simply are not valid forms of speech. On the other side of the aisle, there's a concerted push to invalidate the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision by attempting to amend the Constitution to deprive corporations of legal personhood and of their right to free speech.

And we more prominently have the current push to insist that "hate speech" does not qualify as "free speech" and the belief by many poorly educated Americans (some of whom are actual politicians who should know better). These comments by Priebus should be reminders that if and when there are restrictions placed on the free speech of American citizens, it's the leaders of government who will be calling the shots. We have a president who is thin-skinned and self-interested. We also have any number of political operatives who are willing to play along with him in order to maintain power.

That is all to say, in the event the First Amendment does face the threat of actual new restrictions it will bear the stamp of "public interest." It will be a lie, but not as obvious a lie as what Trump is trying to sell. Guys like Priebus (on both sides of the aisle) will happily sell the Bill of Rights down the river if it will help facilitate the type of government control over society that they want. The Trump administration may deregulate businesses on the one hand, and that's great, but they really have no interest in making the government less powerful.

Back in December, Matt Welch provided a useful five-step process in countering Trump's bad ideas. It's definitely worth reading here.

NEXT: New Jersey stun gun ban struck down, by consent order; New Orleans ban repealed

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  1. It’s jabroni’s all the way down.

    1. Jabroni First Amendment:

      “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, other than Sharia law; abridging the freedom of the speech, or of the press, except in matters of national security, hate speech, or scientific consensus; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble within clearly defined free speech zones, or to petition the government for a redress of grievances through licensed lobbyists.”

      1. I’m always amused when I see this lofty stuff about the “First Amendment,” the “free speech community” and other such nonsense. Surely no one here would dare to defend the outrageous “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated judge in our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case? One out of how many judges? Seventeen? When they’re on the losing side, the “free speech community” (ha-ha-ha) is very discreet about raising such little matters. See the documentation at:

        http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. we have a thin-skinned president who talks a lot; we have thin-skinned antifa people using violence. Which seems like a greater concern? And, by the way, the latter has the at least implicit backing of govt in that City Hall, law enforcement, and university administrations turn a blind eye to violence and vandalism.

    1. Which seems like a greater concern?

      Since I don’t live in Berkley, the greater concern is President Donald J*. Trump.

      *The J stands for jabroni.

      1. You also don’t work in the news media (unless you’re Weigel which makes sense), so why would you care about libel laws?

        The fair weather free speech person

        1. unless you’re Weigel which makes sense

          Does it?

          The fair weather free speech person

          What?

          1. Are you purposely avoiding the question? You argued that Berkeley isn’t a concern, because you don’t live there. Well, you don’t work as a reporter so why does libel worry you?

            1. No, I stated that Berkeley is the greater concern.

              Well, you don’t work as a reporter so why does libel worry you?

              Do you think that libel only applies – or would apply, if the Jabroni-in-Chief gets his way – to professional journalists who have received their journalistic certification?

              1. Where in your response did you state that Berkeley was a greater concern?

                They are both dangerous threats, but one is very unlikely to ever materialize and the other is already occurring. It should be obvious which is which.

                1. Where in your response did you state that Berkeley was a greater concern?

                  I meant, Trump is the greater concern, which is what I stated at 2:17. You know, you could scroll up and read it.
                  They are both dangerous threats, but one is very unlikely to ever materialize and the other is already occurring. It should be obvious which is which.

                  You big fraidy pants.

                  1. “I meant, Trump is the greater concern, which is what I stated at 2:17. You know, you could scroll up and read it.”

                    So, you have changed your response twice and now say that a hypothetical that is unlikely to ever materialize (as Shackford notes) is a greater concern than what is currently occurring? That’s bizarre to say the least.

                    1. I am also bizarrely not concerned about white nationalists, the alt right, the KKK, feminists and the New Black Panthers.

                    2. That completely contradicts what you’ve already said. Maybe you should think about what you’re trying to say, because right now you’re making no sense

                    3. The police mistakenly shoot more innocent gun owners each year than have ever been killed by antifa. Why do you want to get shot by the cops so bad? Huh?

                    4. the Police make .02% bad shoots a year,..90% of all shooting deaths are black on black crimes,..

                      Police are 18% more liable from death from a gun crime..mostly Blacks shooting them.

                      did you ever think , there is something wrong with the culture we created???

                      engage your brain.

        2. unless you’re Weigel which makes sense

          Mikey’s officially got either a disciple or a sock puppet, and i’m not sure which scenario says worse-yet-more-hilarious things about the lower bounds of human mentality.

      2. because Berkeley cannot be replicated elsewhere? Ask Middlebury and NYU and some others about that. Trump has a far bigger hill to climb.

        1. I also don’t live in Middlebury, OR near NYU.

          I bet you don’t either.

    2. He noted that, with regards to people shouting ‘hate speech’. I do think it is curious, though, how apoplectic the news media becomes when the suggestion of expanding libel laws is broached and how silent they are when physical threats to the First Amendment occur. Kind of shows them to be ‘selective’ defenders of the First Amendment

      1. Whereas I haven’t seen you defend it at all.

    3. Antifa, what about foreign terrorists? Foreign terrorists, what about immigrants? Immigrants, what about banksters? Banksters, what about the fake news media? Fake news media, what about false flag school shootings? False flag school shootings, what about chemtrails turning frogs gay? Chemtrails, what about Trump? Trump, what about violent antifa? etc etc etc

      1. chewed through the restraints again?

        1. Jesus christ, wareagle, you really are functionally retarded, you know that? All this BS about antifa is 1. deflection 2. a non sequitur 3. a false dilemma and 4. misleading vividness. But you’re too goddamn stupid to realize that you’re being ridiculed for being a fucking imbecile.

      2. Oh no, not the frogs too

      3. You completely forgot about the menace of gluten.

    4. Do we really need to make sure our concerns are all properly ranked? I’ve got time to be concerned about both, as well as all the “hate speech isn’t free” dicks and all the other anti-free speech/press movements. And that’s just on free expression issues.

      1. People like you that have terrible taste in beer concern me.

        1. When I’m king of the world, all you bitter taste sensitive dicks will be the first to go.

          1. Oh, are you the guy that likes IPAs? Weirdo.

            1. Hey, if Zeb wants to drink all the IPAs, that leaves more beer that actually tastes good for the rest of us.

            2. So, do you think people make IPAs just to annoy you, or what? I think it’s more likely that it is because people buy them because they like them.

          2. Wait, wait, are you OK with porters and stouts? Because when you say bitter, that’s what I’m thinking. Not that nasty sour yellow crap.

            1. Porters and stouts are generally delicious, because they do not contain retarded amounts of hops.

              Sour beers are also delicious, so i hope you are not getting them confused with some nasty old IPA.

              1. A guy I work with gave me a couple cans of Heady Topper when he got back from his ski trip this winter. It was one of the most disgusting “beers” I’ve ever drunk.

            2. I’m OK with all styles of beer. Except overly sweet fruit flavors and pumpkin spice shit.

              I do like hops (and they do taste bitter). I thought Heady Topper was fantastic. But I can quite understand why not everyone agrees. It is a strong flavor.

      2. I’m just asking who is more an actual threat to free speech. One group is assaulting speakers, if not ideas, that it dislikes. Trump is making noise and creating a distraction. For some reason, the people breaking things and assaulting others seem more real.

        1. So Trump is a net positive because he’s not as bad as someone worse. That’s like calling it a cut when you say you’re going to raise spending by 20% but then only raise it by 15%.

          1. I don’t see where he said that. There are some people who would rather focus on the hypothetical that has nearly no chance of ever coming into existence rather than confronting the reality of what is occurring, because to do so makes them feel ‘icky’. How bizarre

            1. And there are some people who don’t feel the need to rank them and then give the lesser ranked option less/no credence. I’m sorry that you’re scared of college kids throwing bombs at you. Imagine what would happen if the US military decided to throw bombs at you if you must have something scary to rank it against.

              1. So should we fear crime committed by refugees as much as we do current street crime? That is the irrational position that you have taken here. One is unlikely to occur, but it should be ranked as just as grave a threat as the current identifiable threat.

                You and Crusty by far win ‘dumbest comments’ for the day. My God

                1. One is unlikely to occur, but it should be ranked as just as grave a threat as the current identifiable threat.

                  We need a new color-coded threat level chart, and after what happened to Ann Coulter I say our threat level was upgraded from sienna to mahogany.

                2. So should we fear crime committed by refugees as much as we do current street crime?

                  No, clearly what we should do is refuse to be concerned about the president because some masked morons decided to attack people.

                  1. No one said that, but that was good deflection.

                    1. No one said that, but that was good deflection

                      Nice try at deflection.

                    2. Ah yes, the equivalent of ‘I know you are, but what am I’.

                      Are you sure you’re not a lonely sixteen year-old girl?

                    3. Ah yes, the equivalent of ‘I know you are, but what am I’.

                      Nice try, but you’re not fooling anyone.

                    4. Are you sure you’re not a lonely sixteen year-old girl?

                      You keep theorizing that people here are lonely, vulnerable teenage girls. It’s starting to seem like you’re hopeful. That is creepy as shit.

          2. I didn’t say he was a net positive. Few things are as intellectually dishonest as making shit up and then arguing against what no one said.

            What Trump may or may not do, or what he waxes about are in the philosophical realm. The people in masks hurling bricks and pepper-spraying folks are reality.

            1. But I must fear a pack of angry college kids more than the person who sits atop the federal government. Because roving bands of morons throwing things are sure to appear in my neighborhood any day now.

              1. And you’re doing it again. Fear who you want, but that pack of college kids has acted in more than one city on more than one occasion, often aided by people who sit atop either university administrations or municipal govts. The guy atop fedzilla has talked.

                I imagine Charles Murray didn’t expect roving bands of morons to throw things at him, either. But that’s okay; stay in your imaginary world where the Man from Orange is an existential threat to all you hold dear.

                1. But that’s okay; stay in your imaginary world where the Man from Orange is an existential threat to all you hold dear

                  Don’t you make fun of my imaginary world. I like it because people aren’t marching down my street and throwing bricks through my windows. And even if there were, I’d be able to fight them off.

        2. I agree that the violent attempts to shut down certain speakers are more immediately concerning. I just don’t know why that has to be brought up in a post about something else. It’s not as if it has been ignored.

          The Berkeley stuff is terrible, but it is very localized. Ann Coulter can still get plenty of speaking gigs. The general climate we are living in, where free speech absolutists are distressingly hard to find, is worth covering as well and is what I worry about more in the long term.

          1. I was just asking a question with regards to the responses from wareagles mention about Berkeley. If they had responded like you just did, criticism of his comment would be logical. Instead the remarks are disturbingly nonsensical.

            1. Yeah, that all went a bit off the rails.

        3. President Trump is the actual threat.

          Fact is, college campuses have been their own weird microcosm since, well, ever. And their impact beyond college isn’t that big. So sure, college campuses are going weird. Big news. Welcome to the 1960s dude.

          President Trump on the other hand has access to a lot of levers of power. Under his direction the Justice Department has the power to utilaterally change the meaning of laws, at least in the short term, and start prosecutions. Even if the SCOTUS eventually pushes back, there will still be a very real chilling effect that stifles speech far more the some student protest. And of course, Trump is probably going to get at least one more appointment to the Supreme Court in the next three years?, so he’ll have influence over how the SCOTUS will interpret the Constitution and statutes.

          So sure. Even though stuff at Berkely is happening, and chances of President Trump doing something big are slim, President Trump is still the bigger threat because Berkely doesn’t have much impact and President Trump has the capability of having a very big impact.
          ________
          ?Well, not quite three years. Apparently if a justice dies or retires in February 2020, it’s now okay to keep that spot open for over a year.

        4. The more I think about it, the more I think that the real, actual threats to free speech are neither the violent asshole college activists or Trump people making noise about libel laws. It’s people who want hate speech to be forbidden and who think that Citizen’s United was a terrible thing (mostly of the left in those cases) and people on both sides who have been making more noise about regulating or censoring the press, or punishing those who publish leaked government information.
          Then there are the old fashioned anti-obscenity crusaders, but they have been steadily getting more irrelevant and I don’t expect that trend to stop.

          1. Zeb, you have become the voice of measured thought on this site

          2. Mark my words, Zeb. One day your temperate middle-of-the-road-ism is going to get you squished like a grape. Mark. My. Words.

    5. Both are worthy of the designation: “illiberal.”

      That doesn’t sit well with those of us who value decentralized power, the Constitution, and the slow, measured process of legislation.

      Both Trump and the reactionaries of the left have contempt for Constitutional integrity. It’s unsettling.

  3. I don’t think Trump’s ideas are bad, they’d have to bake a good while longer to even qualify as stupid. But remember this is the guy the GOP establishment preferred to Cruz because Trump they could at least work with.

  4. “David Burge?
    @iowahawkblog
    I’ll let you ban hate speech when you let me define it. Deal?”

  5. Yes there was a concerted push (a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment proposal), by the “other side” (the entire Senate Democrat Caucus serving at the time, but let us not mention any names, thank you) to put restrictions on political speech. Which should be a hell of a lot more concerning then the vague notions of strengthening libel laws that Trump, in his irritation at being criticized, has floated. The criticism of the press in disingenuous muckraking against those they dislike should be an incentive towards more honest reporting, not something to bemoan as an attack on a free press.

  6. RE: No, Trump Won’t Change the First Amendment, But It Matters That People Want To
    Government censorship always wears the mask of ‘public interest,’ and this will be no different.

    Oh, come on people!
    What’s more important?
    Censoring information for the collective’s own good, or the First Amendment?
    I think we all know the answer to that one.

  7. The only people really shitting on the first amendment are the social justice types. In conversations with them, they literally think words are just as bad as physical violence, so we should ban hateful speech to keep people safe. They literally believe they are on the right side of history, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the state to ban viewpoints they disagree with.

    But no, lets keep talking about how Trump says bad things about the tone-deaf media.

    1. They literally believe they are on the right side of history, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to use the state to ban viewpoints they disagree with.

      How many of these people are part of the government with the power to change things? Honest question, because if there’s a lot then I’ll start worrying.

      1. New York is trying to do that right now. The Democrats there want to punish “Climate Change Deniers” because they are dangerous and peddling fraud.

        Oh yes and Hillary wanted to overturn citizens united. So yes, they want to limit your speech, yet we should worry that Trump says mean things.

        1. Oh yes and Hillary wanted to overturn citizens united. So yes, they want to limit your speech, yet we should worry that Trump says mean things.

          Is Hillary president?

          1. You know thst the President has no legal role in amending the constitution other than advocating for one side or the other through the bully pulpit?

            1. Whereas idiotic college students whose sole mode of discourse is screaming enjoy unassailable legislative authority.

  8. “Trump is not going to be altering the First Amendment. Let’s just start with that.”
    Ginsburg is 84, Kennedy is 80, and Breyer is 78. It wouldn’t be at-all surprising if any of them retired or dropped dead sometime in the next three years? and is replaced by President Trump.

    So sure, President Trump probably won’t be able to propose and ratify a new Constitutional Amendment. But the Constitution is interpreted by people, and Trump has already changed the line-up that does the interpreting, and is likely to make further changes over the next three and a half years.

    And that’s not even talking about chilling effects on free speech. As everyone should know, you don’t have to win a court case to succeed in punishing people. Skilled litigators can drag a case on for years and bleed a person dry, even if they have an obviously loosing case. And Trump has gone from having access to personal lawyers to having access to government lawyers.

    He doesn’t need a constitutional amendment to effectively change the meaning of the First Amendment. He just has to get smart about how he uses the power he already has.

    1. he does not care about it,..he’s not a politician.he wants honesty..wow,..that’s a revelation

  9. What about yelling hate speech in a crowded theater?

    1. Or in an H&R comments section.

  10. People shouldn’t be allowed to say anything they want about our president without consequence.

    1. certainly not in a crowded theater.

  11. President Donald Trump’s willingness to alter the terms of the First Amendment as part of his desire to censor critical press of him is firmly established: See his constant complaints of “fake news” (to be fair, his complaints are sometimes correct) and his desire to “open up libel laws.”

    His complaints of ‘fakenews’ are USUALLY correct. Because they’re not even trying to hide the fact that they’re lying anymore.

    And his ‘attacks’ on the first amendment consist solely of wanting to amend libel laws so that it’s easier for people to bring suit against the media when the media lies about them. That’s not an attack on free speech–that’s making the media liable for their near constant libel that is often only addressed with a correction printed on page R 97 at the bottom under ads for questionable escort services for a day–while the libel was screamed on page 1 for weeks.

    1. But since Trump is Hitler, adjusting libel laws is the same thing as gas chambers.

    2. Merely for having decided to run for president, a person deserves to be libeled every day, without recourse. Public figures and all that.

      The alternative presupposes that government is ever in a position to identify objective truth, which it is manifestly incapable of doing.

  12. All that is required is the same sort of reasonable limits that were placed on the second amendment.
    In order to speak/post/blog/publish/tweet or in any way cause information/opinion to be available to anyone anywhere, you simply need to apply for a speech permit, and have it approved by the sheriff in the city/county where you live. Oh, and pay a fee of several hundred dollars. And attend a class on speaking and writing that is approved for issuing the permit. For a reasonable few hundred dollars more. And if the sheriff declines your application, there is no appeal. And the permit is not necessarily going to be accepted in other states than the state of issue. You have to give up those rights in other states unless those other states have reciprocity agreements with your state. So if you have a Georgia speech permit, and go to or through New Jersey, keep quiet!
    If you want to speak verbally in public to more than four people, that requires federal permitting. To obtain that permit, you have pay additional fees, and allow warrentless “inspections” of your property to look for violations of the license limitations, submit to a full background check, including fingerprints and a photograph. If you want to transfer the speech (idea) to another, you must apply for permission and pay the tax again.
    Shouldn’t be problem, should it?

  13. President Donald Trump’s willingness to alter the terms of the First Amendment as part of his desire to censor critical press of him is firmly established: See his constant complaints of “fake news” (to be fair, his complaints are sometimes correct)

    Reason: Accurate complaints about dishonest media are censorship and an assault on the 1st Amendment.

    Libertarian Moment.

  14. geee, no mention of democrats repeal of first amendment vote???

    trump wants accountability,…amazing REASON can’t see that..

  15. small problem,…complaining, and changing 2 different things..Reason needs an Editor worthy of cleaning up language. amazingly stupid to go from one to the other.

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