Trump and the First Amendment: A pressing issue


President Donald Trump has made controversial remarks and taken controversial actions regarding major news media outlets during both his election campaign and his time in office that many Americans consider to be alarming.

During his campaign, Trump proclaimed, “I think the media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met.”

After verbally targeting The New York Times and The Washington Post, Trump told a crowd of his supporters, “I’m gonna open up our libel laws so when they write purposefully negative and horrible and false articles we can sue them and win lots of money.”  Trump went on to refer to critical articles from those two publications written about him as hit pieces.

Dr. Kevin Hinkley, a Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Niagara University, weighed in on the controversy surrounding the Trump administration and the First Amendment.  He explained that Trump’s vow to open up libel laws raised concerns about the core protections of freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment.  Dr. Hinkley added that a risk of threats to punish free speech could discourage American citizens from expressing their political opinions and stances or criticizing public officials.

After entering office, Trump famously tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing , , , , ) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

In reference to this tweet, Dr. Hinkley said.  “[T]his raised renewed concerns that the president’s apparent antagonism toward leading mainstream media outlets could result in suppression of speech – could result in a crackdown on the freedom of the press – which, for scholars of the First Amendment, raises grave concerns about a disruption of the political process [and] the suppression of the press and if that were to happen, it would be a fundamental departure from how the American political system has operated over the past 200 years.”

Dr. Hinkley clarified that the First Amendment’s core protection is for political speech regarding political candidates, government officials, and matters of public concern.

“[W]hen you have the chief executive – the President of the United States – suggesting that political speech should not receive full protection that is something that runs counter to our history, our tradition, and the expansive view that courts have taken of the First Amendment’s protection,” said Dr. Hinkley.

The recent exclusion of several major news media outlets from a recent press gaggle – an informal press briefing at which no recording was allowed – was identified by Dr. Hinkley as another cause of concern among First Amendment scholars.  He claimed that discrimination against news outlets based on their viewpoints would be difficult to justify.

“Discrimination on the basis of content or viewpoint is something that would require a compelling justification and so far none has been given,” Dr. Hinkley said.

On the subject of whether or not these concerns are justified, Dr. Hinkley is not yet sure.

“[I]t is still very early in the administration,” Dr. Hinkley said, “and we’ll have to see where things go from here.”

Dr. Hinkley emphasized that the U.S. Constitution provides a system of checks and balances to prevent the executive branch of government from breaching its authority and that the judicial branch is essential to upholding the limitations imposed on the executive branch.

“I think it is important for citizens to be vigilant – just as courts are vigilant – against potential threats to freedom of speech [and] freedom of press – these core protections of the First Amendment part of our nation’s constitutional legacy,” Dr. Hinkley advised.

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