Donald Trump treats the First Amendment like a real estate holding. When it helps him, he likes it, and when it hurts him, he hates it.
Under the microscope of a presidential campaign, it’s no surprise Trump has turned to hammering the press, calling its practitioners “losers” and “disgusting” and “dishonest.” He doesn’t like how the press has been covering him since he got the GOP nomination, arguing journalists misinterpret his missteps – to wit: declaring President Obama and Hillary Clinton “founded ISIS” and suggesting Second Amendment supporters could do something about Clinton if she emerges victorious.
Now that he is sagging in the polls, Trump asserts a loss to Clinton will relate to media bias “rigging” the election for her – and never mind that his pet TV outlet, Fox News, faithfully defends his fairy tales daily, and that he benefited from millions of dollars in free media publicity to win the 17-candidate Republican primary race.
Trump’s anti-media bluster is one thing; his policy proposal to make it easier to punish the press by weakening the nation’s libel laws that protect journalists and citizens against angry public officials is insensibly dangerous to our democratic form of government.
The notion he could single-handedly dismantle First Amendment freedoms and “open up…libel laws” strikes at a constitutional principle that has protected American citizens for decades. A principle that guarantees not even the president of the United States can take away the public’s right to read, hear and view news and information about politicians and their conduct in office.
Trump told a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier in the campaign: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”
To do that, he would need to either get the states and the Congress to change the First Amendment’s press and free speech clauses or appoint judges who would roll back the long-held standard that requires public officials to prove journalists or citizens deliberately published falsehoods about them with the intent of actual malice.
Voters have come to accept the impossibilities of Trump’s policy statements, but there’s more at stake when a presidential candidate takes a shot at the one standard that gives everyone, liberal or conservative, the right to stand up to the government or business or other powerful interests.
And, if you think about it, no politician benefits more from First Amendment freedoms than Trump.
"He should be especially, especially protective of the First Amendment. He could be in jail in Europe for some of the things he's said about Muslims," Floyd Abrams, an accomplished First Amendment lawyer, told CNN.
The First Amendment does not discriminate in who it protects. It protects liberals, conservatives, bloggers, the press and the people. A restriction on First Amendment freedoms aimed at the press would fall on all Americans.
Trump should know that and still he savages the right of the press and the people to criticize him and point out the consequences of his statements and policies.