Jeff Brooks: Trump endagers First Amendment rights

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 - 4:27pm

Freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly — the foundation of American democracy is in the First Amendment. Be you a Democrat, a Republican or something in between, relative to most people in the world, you’re free to express your opinion in any way you see fit. This notion is so deeply ingrained in the DNA of our nation that it’s almost unfathomable to consider that there are others who are deprived of these freedoms. Yet, despite the fact that these fundamental rights are written into the United States’ Constitution, which all but guarantees that its citizens will forever have these rights, we must never forget that the suppression of free speech will always be a very real threat to democracy.

That is exactly why I continue to find Donald Trump’s recent statements so troubling. Throughout the course of the past year, Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to weaken the power of our most vital right and has received an alarmingly low degree of criticism for his comments. Most recently, he claimed that if anyone were to burn the American flag, “there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Putting aside the fact that threatening to expatriate U.S. citizens is a deeply disturbing sentiment in itself, many Americans will claim that a law preventing this type of behavior would have no effect on their daily lives, as they would never dream of desecrating the flag. Yet the truth is that regardless of if you agree with the action of flag-burning itself, a law of this nature would set a very dangerous precedent, as the Supreme Court has deemed the act a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment on multiple occasions.

If a U.S. citizen could be arrested or even stripped of their citizenship for an act that is clearly protected under the First Amendment, an all-out war on free speech could begin. Once flag-burning is outlawed, what is to stop the president from punishing U.S. citizens for engaging in other acts of protest? Could someone be arrested for simply marching in the streets? Is it so ludicrous to suggest that under these circumstances, one could be arrested for speaking ill of the president in any way? While I understand that these examples are extreme in nature, they are important to mention, as this is the type of slippery slope that a law of this nature would create.

Many will say that treating Trump’s statement with this degree of seriousness is an overreaction, and I would agree if it had been made in a vacuum. Yet we must remember that this decree is coming from the same man who once urged his own supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters at his rallies. His actions and statements have continued to build upon one another over the course of the past year, and it is clear that an anti-First Amendment sentiment has emerged from Trump’s corner.

For a man who has vehemently protested the political correctness and sensitivity of modern American society, Trump has made it quite clear that any negative comments hurled in his direction will not be tolerated. He has repeatedly insulted reporters who have criticized him or asked him tough questions and even banned many news organizations from attending his events for fear of negative coverage. Perhaps most concerning of all, he has claimed on multiple occasions that he will “open up our libel laws” so it will be much easier to sue reporters and news outlets for publishing negative stories.

Many have realized the danger that Trump’s statements represent, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-partisan committee that advocates for the rights of journalists throughout the world, has even gone as far as to issue a statement declaring Trump “an unprecedented threat to the rights of journalists.”

But despite these troubling signs there has been very little discussion of Trump’s potential crusade against the most fundamental rights that we as Americans enjoy. While many are quick to erupt in furious protest when even the slightest degree of gun control is proposed, claiming that such limitations violate their Second Amendment rights, they seem content to let the preceding amendment slip by the wayside.

Perhaps Trump’s statements haven’t been taken seriously enough because of how ubiquitous the First Amendment is in our society. Most of us have lived our entire lives without ever having to fear reprisal for speaking our minds, and as a result we cannot imagine society any other way. Yet ignoring dangerous statements simply because we do not perceive them as plausible is a disservice to our way of life and a sentiment that has emerged with alarming frequency since Trump’s election. These statements cannot be ignored; the American people must utilize the very rights that Trump threatens and speak out against these threats to our freedom.

Jeff Brooks can be reached at brooksjs@umich.edu