Donald Trump’s overheated bombast regarding the press and “fake news” has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks. But despite the president’s constant broadsides against the media, he hasn’t proposed any policy that would undermine First Amendment freedoms.
The same can’t be said on many liberal college campuses or in a growing number of courtrooms across the country.
Last week, for example, a Florida judge threatened a newspaper over its coverage of the Parkland school shooting. Judge Elizabeth Scherer called the Sun Sentinel’s reporting “shameful” after it published a confidential report the school district had compiled on the confessed shooter when he was a student.
The judge threatened to hold the newspaper in contempt, Reason.com reported, and then went even further. “From now on,” she said, “if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print — and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie … then I’ll do that.”
That, of course, would be flatly unconstitutional. That a judge would make such a witless threat is an embarrassment. Sadly, however, it isn’t all that unusual.
Earlier this year, for instance, District Judge Richard Scotti ordered the Review-Journal and The Associated Press to destroy copies of an autopsy report and to refrain from reporting on its findings. He also suggested government officials dig through the newspaper’s files for the documents.
The Nevada Supreme Court eventually vacated the order.
In May, an Arkansas judge ordered several TV stations to stop airing a political ad critical of a state Supreme Court justice up for re-election. The judge issued the temporary restraining order without hearing arguments from both sides. “That is a quintessential unconstitutional prior restraint,” noted UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
“The courts are alive with prior restraints on speech,” wrote Jonathan Peters for the American Bar Association in 2015. “Judges have enjoined people from speaking online about ex-lovers, from criticizing old business partners (and) from publicizing that someone was suspended from the practice of law.”
The struggle to preserve our First Amendment freedoms requires diligence on a variety of fronts, particularly when surveys show that many Americans are incapable of articulating the rights contained therein. Nor does it help that, while blasting Mr. Trump for his rhetorical excesses, many of today’s progressives have become so beholden to grievance and identity politics that they would happily embrace a government ban on speech or expression they believe might “offend” somebody somewhere.
Assaults on the First Amendment have become more brazen and aggressive in recent years, particularly among the left. The president’s Twitter rhetoric is misguided, but the White House is hardly the biggest problem.