Posted at 11 a.m. Feb. 6, 2017
Can’t Trump the First Amendment
An Anonymous protester attends the Women’s March in downtown Cheyenne on Jan. 21.
President Trump has already taken actions that begin to threaten the very fabric of the republic we live in, but there are things citizens can do to counteract Trump’s actions.
Freedom of speech is that fabric and the Trump administration has taken actions that directly oppose it. Emails examined by the Associated Press were essentially gag orders sent to Environmental Protection Agency staff since Trump’s inauguration. They instituted a media blackout at the EPA and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants. The media blackout is a clear violation of freedom of speech and the First Amendment. The people have the right to know what is going on in sensitive areas, especially when it concerns the environment. If the media cannot communicate with a government agency, transparency cannot and will not be maintained. There can be no shadow government.
The Trump Administration also ordered a temporary suspension of all new business activities at the EPA, which is expected to immediately affect EPA activities nationwide. This seems contradictory considering Trump has claimed to be pro-environment since his inauguration.
The United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service has also ceased communications. In a memo to ARS employees, chief of staff Sharon Drumm said the agency would no longer release any public-facing documents. These include but are not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds and social media content, according to the memo obtained by the AP.
This is another clear impediment to the media being allowed to do its job of showing the public what government is actually doing and another violation of the First Amendment. On top of that, the ARS is a scientific research department that is funded by tax dollars and all Americans have a right to the information obtained therein.
The Department of Interiors communications team also temporarily halted media correspondence after a series of shared tweets. The first tweet noted the difference between the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration compared to Barack Obama’s inauguration. The second was about several omissions of policy areas on the new White House website.
An email obtained by the Washington Post, which was circulated to thousands of Interior employees, said, “All bureaus and the department have been directed by incoming administration to shut down Twitter platforms immediately until further notice.”
Interior has dozens of official Twitter accounts including Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey. The accounts have since reactivated but this is still another example of freedom of speech eroding.
Trump also stood on some bold rhetoric during his campaign that could easily lead to further erosion of the rights of the press and the people. During his campaign Trump said he would “open up our libel laws” if he became president. Changing libel laws could lead to media censorship, but thankfully they would not be easy laws to change.
According to Firstamendmentcenter.org, libel is defined as a form of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his or her business or profession. Since libel is a matter of state law that is limited by the principles of the First Amendment presidents cannot change the laws. Trump would have to change the First Amendment principles to change the law, which would require an act by the Supreme Court or an amendment to the Constitution itself.
The Supreme Court established the First Amendment principles that govern the country’s libel laws in 1964, with its unanimous decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. In the ruling the court said that public officials had to prove that false statements were made with “actual malice,” which means news organizations had to have knowingly published a falsehood or published it with “reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
These laws must be protected for the press to serve as a watch dog of the government. If the press can be punished for any error, public discussion of controversial subjects would cease. That is not acceptable in any open society.
The situation may seem dire now but do not despair. There are opportunities to stand against the erosion of our free press. Trump protests have been taking place across the country, people can join them, shoot photos or make signs. Facebook and Twitter are excellent platforms to share this information and Change.org is always circulating petitions on various subjects. The current assault on free speech is an unacceptable situation but we, the journalists of the world, can’t do it alone. Citizens must stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of press.