Trump vs. Jefferson on Freedom of the Press
On October 11, President Trump tweeted that fake news was such a threat that someone should look into challenging network licenses on that basis. The next day, (October 12) he doubled down in a follow-up tweet that “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate revoked.”
Unfortunately, his tweet contained some fake news of its own. It implied that networks are licensed, when, in fact, individual stations have broadcast licenses. And the difference implies that Trump’s suggested “solution” is incapable of addressing the problem he sees. Further, his “if appropriate” suggests that there is a situation in which pulling a broadcast license is appropriate for communicating something the President doesn’t like. But if one takes freedoms of speech and the press seriously, and applies those same standards to media that did not exist in our founders’ days, there is never a time to acceptably deny Americans’ freedoms, even for “fake news.”
The Constitution included freedoms of speech and the press because our founders knew freedom of expression was necessary to maintain liberty. They repudiated restrictions on the press because they remembered that colonial printers had been licensed, but licenses could be revoked and printers imprisoned (e.g., Ben Franklin’s brother, James). At the time, newspapers were the primary means of public communication, so they were insulated from political extortion from those who didn’t like what they printed. However, they emphasized freedom of expression, not the particular medium used. If radio, TV and the internet existed in the 1770s, the principle behind freedom of the press would have been expressed more broadly.
To see this, you need only consider some of our founding generation’s own words.
A letter sent by the Continental Congress on October 26, 1774 found that the importance of the freedom of the press “consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects…whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”
John Adams argued, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people…of the characters and conduct of their rulers,” which is why his distant cousin, Samuel Adams, found that “there is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so terrible to tyrants…as a free press.”
Fisher Ames wrote that “freedom of the press…is a precocious pest, and a necessary mischief, and there would be no liberty without it.” George Mason said, “The freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” asserted, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.”
Thomas Jefferson, our founder who wrote most prolifically about our freedoms, asserted that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” He also said, “I am...for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” Further, “that man may be governed by reason and truth” required that we “leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.” Therefore, “the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” In fact, Jefferson concluded that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The founders’ insistence on freedom of the press, at a time when papers were often highly partisan rather than “balanced,” applies just as much to the far broader range of media that is now influential. That has always made some in Washington want to shackle the freedom of expression of “unfriendlies,” as was the case with the Fairness Doctrine, which targeted talk radio (but not newspapers and television, which were sharply left-leaning), until Ronald Reagan killed it in 1987.
President Trump’s proposal of imposing politically-motivated punishments for those whose reporting he doesn’t like falls very close to the fruit of the Fairness Doctrine tree, at odds with American liberty. In fact, it echoes the Soviet ideal more than ours. As Vladimir Lenin put it: “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government… allow itself to be criticized? I would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to…disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?”
Lenin was right that ideas are ultimately more fatal to government abuses than guns. That is why Americans must defend our freedoms of expression beyond merely freedom of the print media.
What Trump suggests cannot be reconciled with a central freedom that once defined America. And it would come with a very high price tag to our country. In John F. Kennedy’s words, “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” And, as the late Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once put it, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”