“Our First Amendment test is here. We can’t afford to flunk it,” ran the headline of Margaret Sullivan’s column in the Washington Post on Sunday. The test, of course, is Donald Trump’s presidency, which Sullivan worries will threaten the First Amendment.
The column itself is a fine example of an emerging subgenre of post-election journalism that pretends to care about free speech now that Trump has won the White House. The great irony of these missives is that the outlets publishing them didn’t seem to care all that much during Barack Obama’s tenure in office. They were willing either to turn a blind eye to the administration’s attacks on the First Amendment, or actively cheer these on.
Sullivan quotes a column of mine from March, in which I argued that Trump doesn’t seem to understand libel laws, in part because he wants to make it easier to sue journalists and news organizations for “purposely negative and horrible and false articles.” Coming from a leading contender for the presidency, these were indeed troubling remarks at the time.
They still are. But Trump’s cavalier attitude toward free speech isn’t unique. In fact, it’s a fundamental feature of the political Left. For all its wailing about free speech in the wake of Trump’s election last week, the media spent eight years enabling and at times encouraging the Obama administration’s denigration of the First Amendment.
A Long Record Of Indifference to Free Speech
Take the free speech case par excellence, Citizens United v. FEC. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling prohibited the government from restricting the right of corporations to engage in free speech. Obama and the Democrats love to denounce Citizens United for allowing “dark money” to influence our elections, but recall that the case itself concerned a nonprofit that produced a documentary critical of Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2008 Democratic primary. Democrats think the federal government should be able to muzzle such a group, according to which logic there would be no reason the government couldn’t also muzzle The New York Times, CNN, or HarperCollins—or any corporation engaged in “political speech.”
Democrats, especially Obama and Clinton, have routinely called for Citizens United to be overturned. Think about that. Clinton ran for president on a platform that included amending the Constitution specifically to ban criticism of her. She’s not alone. In 2014, every Democratic member of the Senate voted to overturn Citizens United by amending the First Amendment to give Congress broad powers to suppress political speech through campaign finance reform.
Or what about Obama’s Internal Revenue Service targeting scandal? All but ignored by the liberal press and mostly forgotten amid the drama of election season, the IRS targeted more than 400 conservative groups in what will someday, one hopes, be remembered as one of the worst federal scandals in modern times—which is still ongoing, by the way.
Then there’s Obama’s national security fabulist Ben Rhodes, who crafted a false narrative about political moderation in Iran to sell a gullible press on the administration’s unpopular and unworkable Iran nuclear deal.
In that March column of mine Sullivan quoted, I referenced Cuba, where libel is “whatever the regime says it is.” But she failed to quote the full sentence, which notes that Obama held a press junket during his visit to Cuba that week—a visit the mainstream media largely celebrated. Few publications noted that, for the sake of a photo op with Cuban strongman Raúl Castro, Obama was willing to stage, without irony, a press event in a country that routinely imprisons journalists.
The list goes on and on. Yet here’s Politico’s Jack Shafer, clutching his pearls and worrying that, heaven forfend, Trump’s White House might coordinate with Breitbart, “functioning as his ministry of information as it did during the campaign, and going on the attack to keep renegade legislators in line.” This, in a publication whose chief political correspondent, Glenn Thrush, sent stories to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta for approval, imploring him, “Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this.”
The Left Has a First Amendment Problem
The problem here is not just the liberal media’s blatant collusion with the Obama administration and the Clinton campaign, but the broader posture of the political Left toward free speech. When mainstream media outlets collectively applaud the boycott of a rural pizza parlor, or the ruination of Brendan Eich, or the persecution of florists and bakers and elderly nuns who hold disfavored political views, it sends a strong message that freedom of speech doesn’t mean anything.
On college campuses across the country, liberal professors encourage their students to boycott and protest conservative speakers, shout down administrators who dare to challenge them, and segregate themselves from anyone who might have a different view. Couched in the language of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” the Left’s enforcement of political correctness has created a climate of intolerance that goes beyond the campus. Even now, those protesting the legitimate outcome of a national election are in effect railing against the exercise of free speech at the ballot box.
Trump’s election is a rebuke of all that. Americans across the political spectrum are tired of political and media elites telling them what they’re allowed to say and think, dictating which ideas and opinions are permissible in polite society.
For the mainstream press to wring their hands now, after years of carrying water for Democrats who don’t care about the First Amendment, strains credulity. Most Americans know the media have been complicit in the Left’s attacks on free speech, which is one reason Americans’ trust in them has now sank to an historic low.
They also know that the media care far more about freedom of the press than freedom of speech. If they were so concerned about the First Amendment, they would have to concede that Clinton posed as much of a threat to the speech of ordinary Americans as Trump does to the speech of journalists.
We should of course be vigilant during Trump’s tenure in office, and criticize any efforts to silence the press, deny access, or otherwise trample on the First Amendment. Given his past statements and touchy temperament, there’s reason to believe Trump might indeed be hostile to critical news coverage.
But let’s not pretend we haven’t been living through a period of hostility to free speech. If the media are worried about that now, it’s only because it will be more difficult under the Trump administration to manipulate and control the narrative—a professional perk to which the Washington press corps has become all too accustomed.