Tess Vrbin is a sophomore journalism student at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about national politics for The Maneater.
Donald Trump’s election last month has endangered some important policies and norms in America. Once he takes office with the Republican Party controlling Congress, the Affordable Care Act could be repealed or at least significantly weakened, which would leave millions of Americans without health insurance. Trump believes climate change is a hoax, so he could withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A phone call between Trump and the president of Taiwan on Friday threatened to sour America’s relationship with China.
But one of the most important things Trump’s election endangers is the First Amendment. I’m not saying it might go away, because only a new constitutional amendment can nullify an existing one. I highly doubt Congress will actually propose a new amendment limiting our freedoms of expression and approve it with a two-thirds vote in each house. But what good is the constitutional protection of certain rights if the face of our nation constantly disrespects them? The president sets an example for the rest of the country, and Trump’s numerous attacks on free expression give others permission to do the same.
His proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. attacks freedom of religion. His condemnation of the widespread protests against his election in November attacks freedom of assembly. He hasn’t said much pertaining to freedom of petition, but when Green Party candidate Jill Stein requested a voting recount in Michigan last week, he filed an objection. Speaking on his behalf, his lawyers claimed in the objection that the recount would cause “constitutional chaos,” even though Stein’s request, which is a form of petition, was perfectly legal.
Trump’s two most recent attacks on free speech have happened within the past month. A few weeks ago, the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton directly addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence and said they were concerned Trump’s presidency threatened certain groups’ safety. Trump reacted by throwing a tantrum on Twitter and calling the cast’s peaceful statement “harassment.” Last week, he tweeted that people who burn the American flag should go to jail or lose their citizenship. In the 1989 Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson, the court ruled that flag-burning is in fact constitutionally protected free speech, even though most Americans disagree with it.
For months, Trump has railed against America’s free press. Since he became president-elect, he has repeatedly ditched the group of journalists assigned to cover him. Every time a news outlet reports something negative about him, he accuses the outlet and the media in general of being biased against him. In late February, he said he would try to “open up” libel laws to make it easier to sue the media if he got elected. In New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 Supreme Court case, the court ruled that the press can only be punished for publishing falsehood if they did it with “reckless disregard for the truth.” Trump, not the media, holds that disregard.
The First Amendment does not just protect free speech, assembly, petition, press and religion. Through those things, it protects diversity of thought, ideology and methods of communication. Overall, it protects the truth. To prevent people from expressing themselves is to hinder awareness of reality.
Trump wants people to say only what he agrees with and wants to hear. That’s not fair, nor is it representative of America’s many forms of diversity. He also wants to be completely free of criticism no matter what he says, and that’s irrational. There’s almost always going to be someone who disagrees. It’s OK to disagree, and it’s OK to respectfully criticize others.
So what can we as citizens do to protect and respect our First Amendment rights while our next president does neither? We simply keep exercising them. We should keep speaking our minds, practicing our religious faiths (or lack thereof) and gathering and petitioning to support causes, no matter what they are. We should also take the time to educate ourselves about the ideas and beliefs of others so that we can support their rights instead of just defending our own. The press should keep reporting the truth, whether it’s good or bad, and the public should support the press by actively consuming news from reliable sources. Trump can insult our rights all he wants, but he can’t take them away.