On this Fourth of July weekend, in addition to celebrating the anniversary of our country's independence with picnics, parades and fireworks, we should be taking a look at forces threatening our American system of democracy.
According to a recent report by Freedom House, a nonpartisan, U.S.-based watchdog organization, “While democracy in America remains robust by global standards, it has weakened significantly over the past eight years and the current president's ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism, and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline.”
One of the key freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment is freedom of the press – the right of the media to publish news and opinions free of government censorship. Indeed, the ability to criticize government and its elected officials is the hallmark of a free society. As the founders knew well, freedom of the press “is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic government” (1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights).
However, freedom of the press, fundamental to the working of a democracy and an informed citizenry, is under attack – and not just around the world. According to Freedom House's report, President Donald Trump's “repeated attacks on journalists and his continual vilification of the press” have fueled the erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media. Trump has attempted to bar journalists from White House briefings, threatened to change libel laws that protect the press, openly supported and favored friendly news outlets, threatened to revoke licenses and financially damage news outlets critical of his presidency.
Thankfully, because of our country's constitutional protections, Trump has been unsuccessful in most of these attempts. However, as Freedom House notes, Trump's words have had a damaging effect at home and for the free press around the world.
How many times have we heard Trump deride unflattering but fact-based journalism as “fake news”? Indeed, his fake news label is reminiscent of the widely used Nazi term “lügenpresse” (lying press) and of Soviet leader Josef Stalin's demonizing characterization of the media as the “enemy of the people.”
Recent polls confirm that Trump's rhetoric is working. One showed that 43% of Republicans, 21% of independents and 12% of Democrats believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” When asked whether Trump should close down some specific outlets, including CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times, nearly a quarter of Republicans (23%) said yes. Some 48% of Republicans, 12% of Democrats and 26% of independents said they believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.”
These polls are astonishing and frightening. A substantial block of citizens – more than enough under our current system to elect a president – either have never heard of the First Amendment or simply don't care about a free press and its essential role in protecting our democracy. Freedom House warns us, based on patterns seen in other nations, not to assume either the resilience of our democratic institutions or that they will not ultimately be taken over through authoritarianism, as has happened in other democracies.
As President Ronald Reagan memorably observed: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.”
So, what is the solution to this existential threat to our republic?
Our leaders, both local and national, need to protect and defend the Constitution and help educate citizens who somehow believe their beloved country should permit a president to shut down the free press. Patriotic and civic-minded citizens need to denounce these efforts to censor and undermine the press as undemocratic, un-American and a threat to our personal freedoms.
Those who stay silent, who ignore this crisis, may live to regret it. As Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal observed: “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
Kathryn Brogan and James Fenton are attorneys with Eilbacher Fletcher LLC.