“It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it.” — President Donald Trump, Oct. 11, 2017
Eager as we always are to fulfill your wishes, Mr. President, we have taken some time to “look into” our ability to write whatever we want. It turns out there is a document called the Constitution that sets out the powers and limitations of the Congress, the judiciary, even — and this may come as something of an unwelcome surprise, Mr. Trump — the president. The First Amendment, ratified shortly after the Constitution itself, reads, “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.”
How the heck did that get in there, you may ask? It turns out that even with these pesky limitations on federal power, some people at the time feared that the Constitution would give the national government too much authority. So these anti-federalists insisted on specific protections for the rights of individuals against possibly tyrannical government actions like cruel and unusual punishment, seizure of property and forced self-incrimination. (There’s another one in there about the right to keep and bear arms that we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with, Mr. President.)
But surely the author of that amendment didn’t intend it to protect the press from saying mean things about the president, did he? Um, actually, yeah. It turns out that’s exactly what James Madison thought the First Amendment means, as evidenced by his opposition to the Sedition Act that was passed during the John Adams administration to insulate the president and his allies from criticism.
It set out criminal penalties for those who published “any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with an intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either, or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States.” And to be clear, the Adamsites had a pretty broad definition of “false” to include anything they didn’t like; they thought everything was “fake news,” too.
Madison organized an effort in the Virginia legislature to condemn the Sedition Act as unconstitutional, saying it ought to “produce universal alarm; because it is leveled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right.” Later, he wrote that had the Sedition Act been in force “forbidding every publication that might bring the constituted agents into contempt or disrepute, or that might excite the hatred of the people against the authors of unjust or pernicious measures … might not the United States have been languishing at this day, under the infirmities of a sickly confederation? Might they not possibly be miserable colonies, groaning under a foreign yoke?”
Our ability as the press to write whatever we want to write, even and especially when it is critical of those in power, is not a runaway byproduct of our freedoms. It is the source and guarantor of them. If you find that disgusting, Mr. President, then it is the very underpinning of what made America not only great but even possible in the first place that you find disgusting.
One other note: If there is virtually no legal restraint on what we as Americans can say or write, there is a practical one. If we continually say things that are untrue, we will not be believed. If we do nothing but hurl invective, we will not be liked. And if we repeatedly offend our audience, we will be abandoned. Perhaps that’s something you might consider next time you pick up the phone to tweet.
(Oh, and also, John Adams was a one-termer. Sad!)
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