Three things have converged in the news that need some analysis in light of the First Amendment.
First, Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering Infowars has been blacklisted — in total or in part — by Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify. Jones calls the move “communist-style censorship.”
Second, President Donald J. Trump has ratcheted up the frequency and intensity of his rhetoric about the news media being “the enemy of the people.”
Third, Ipsos Public Affairs, “a nonpartisan, objective, survey-based research practice made up of seasoned professionals,” reports that 26 percent of Americans say “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
So how does the foregoing relate to the First Amendment, which says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… ”? Let’s consider a few myths and realities.
The First Amendment declares that government shall not be in the business of limiting freedom of expression, whether we’re talking about speech, print or a variety of other forms of communication that the courts have decided are also protected.
As with all freedoms, freedom of expression isn’t absolute. There are limits — such as the classic example that “you can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, thus endangering lives. You can’t defame others. You can’t promote crime. You can’t incite to riot. But barring such compelling state interests, the government promises not to abridge your right to communicate as you see fit.
However, and here’s the critical issue: That guarantee applies only to government. It doesn’t mean that your employer, your faith group, your professional organization or some other entity with which you wish to affiliate won’t take punitive action if your message or manner of presentation contravenes their rules or norms.
Nor does it mean that your neighbors won’t shun you, your customers won’t boycott your business or the electorate won’t refuse to vote for you if it doesn’t like what you’re saying. The amendment is solely about what the government can and cannot do.
Furthermore, freedom of the press means merely that if you have a press, you’re free to write and print what you want. It doesn’t mean that you have any obligation to produce and disseminate what I want promoted.
If you refuse to use your press to share my message, it’s not censorship. It’s purely and completely a matter of business. Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify have made just such a business decision concerning Alex Jones and Infowars.
Clearly, our nation’s founders were committed to freedom in the realm of communication. They recognized that a free press — inconvenient though journalists and their proclamations can be sometimes be — was still one of the best ways to hold government leaders accountable in a free society.
Although my exercise of freedom of speech and press might be offensive or disruptive to some, and although some might strongly disagree with my expressed opinions, the fact that I’m exercising a constitutional right doesn’t make me an “enemy of the people.”
Alex Jones clearly doesn’t understand what the First Amendment is and is not! The First Amendment is about what roles government can and can’t play. It’s not about business decisions by organizations that deal in communication.
And President Trump doesn’t grasp the depth of wisdom enshrined in the First Amendment’s protection of a free press. Swamps of political incompetence and corruption are almost never drained by the initiative of politicians. They’re drained when a free press persists in shining its spotlight on sordid realities.
But the biggest — and frankly, most disconcerting — misunderstanding of all involves the 26 percent of Americans who believe that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in what that individual deems as ‘bad behavior.’” They don’t understand the division of responsibility and the checks and balances on which our constitutional republic is based.
The overt and constant attacks leveled by the president at news outlets that report things he doesn’t like emboldened the decision — coordinated by The Boston Globe’s Editorial Board — of more than 100 publications across the United States to publish editorials today rejecting Trump’s repeated attacks on the press. [The Orlando Sentinel joined the message by publishing a guest editorial from its sister news organization, the South Florida Sun Sentinel.]
In dictatorships, the supreme leader decides unilaterally what’s good, what’s bad and what to do about it. But in a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” we have such safeguards against tyrants — one of the most important is our Constitution’s First Amendment.
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider, one of the Three Wise Guys on the radio program Friends Talking Faith, is also chair of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.