Buried deep in a campaign rally speech that went on for an hour and 19 minutes, President Donald Trump on Tuesday mounted a conventional wisdom-busting defense of the First Amendment.
That fact may come as a surprise, especially for readers who weren’t able to watch Trump’s address. Many voices in the media have been complaining for months that Trump is a wannabe tyrant who regularly “attacks the First Amendment.”
Speaking to a boisterous crowd at an election rally in West Virginia, the president railed against censorship by social media platforms. But he made clear that he believes the free speech umbrella extends even to outlets that routinely bash him.
“You know, I’d rather have fake news like CNN,” he said, waving toward the bank of reporters in front of him. “I would rather have fake news — it’s true — than have anybody, including liberals, socialists, anything, than have anybody stopped and censored.”
Trump’s mention of CNN, a favorite foil, drew some groans. But Trump brushed them aside.
“We gotta live with it. We gotta get used to it,” he said. “We gotta live with fake news. There’s too many sources. Every one of us is sort of like a newspaper. You have Twitter. You have whatever you have. Facebook.”
“You can’t have censorship. You can’t pick one person and say, ‘Well, we don’t like what he’s been saying. He’s out.’ So, we’ll live with fake news,” he said. “I mean, I hate to say it. But we have no choice. Because that’s by far, the better alternative. We can’t have people saying, ‘censorship.’ Because you know what? It could turn around. It could be them next … We believe in the right of Americans to speak their minds.”
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Trump the First Amendment champion seems like an oxymoron to his critics who constantly insinuate that America is just a step away from jailing journalists, shutting down opposition newspapers and yanking television licenses.
Here is just a small sampling of such headlines since Trump became president:
- July 23, The Washington Post: “Trump is attacking the First Amendment again.”
- March 12, The Washington Post: “President Trump’s cultural assault on the First Amendment.”
- May 22, USA Today: “Donald Trump’s Amazon-Washington Post-Jeff Bezos attacks are attacks on the First Amendment.”
- Oct. 13, 2017, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): “Donald Trump Thinks the Freedom of the Press Is ‘Disgusting.’” (The “disgusting” comment actually referred to reporters who lie, not the constitutional amendment that protects them).
- August 16, the Center for Media and Democracy: “Trump Attacks on First Amendment Are Un-American.”
So alarmed are the media at the threat Trump poses that more than 300 newspapers last week joined a Boston Globe initiative to coordinate editorials defending a free and independent press against the president’s attacks.
But Rich Noyes, director of research at the Media Research Center (MRC), told LifeZette that the First Amendment flows in both directions.
“‘Fake news’ is his slogan,” he said. “But what he’s really talking about is biased news … He often seems to have a self-serving definition of that. But there’s nothing about journalism that immunizes them from criticism.”
Noyes said it is not a good look for journalists to dish out criticism but seem unable to take it. But he added that Trump should continue to make clear the distinction between what he regards as unfair reporting and the constitutional rights of those same reporters.
“He should talk this way because it’s the right position,” he said.
Trump’s defense of free speech on Tuesday extended not just to journalists but to controversial figures who have been banned by Facebook and other social media platforms.
“We’re also standing up to social media censorship,” he said. “That’s the new thing.”
Noyes said there is a legal distinction. The First Amendment does not guarantee access to Facebook, Twitter, or other outlets run by private companies. But he said journalists ought to make common cause with anyone silenced for his views.
“It needs to be as free and open as possible … Why wouldn’t they want that?” he said.