Fire, Fury, and Censorship

Last year, China was caught up in at least two censorship controversies of academic articles that the government deemed too politically sensitive. As an American, I'm accustomed to saddling up the high horse at this point and hoisting myself up in well-worn stirrups to look down upon the censors.

Yet, this year, the saddle is missing. America's President has squired it off in a cloud of anti-free speech tirades, while threatening censorship of his own. 

The instigating factor is the recent book, "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff, a well-known if not well-regarded journalist who was audacious enough to gain entry into the White House when it was at its least organized, and who has strung together a story worth reading.

President Trump has an authoritarian's relationship with the media -- when it is a tool he can wield, he wants it to be far-reaching and powerful; when it is a tool that doesn't flatter or support him and his allies, he wants to cripple it. 

To cripple it without destroying it, Trump has taken three general approaches -- call valid journalism into question unrelentingly; threaten to change laws to make it easier for journalists and media outlets to be sued; and use direct legal action against publications he feels have wronged him. The latter includes attempts to censor.

Coming from a US President, this seems a violation of the President's Oath of Office, which reads:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Actively subverting the First Amendment appears to violate this oath.

However, with a flaccid Congressional majority who seem to themselves not be up to their own oaths to protect and uphold the Constitution, and who seem willing to protect misinformation that benefits them to a shocking degree, we are left with the courts, the states, and the private sector to help prevent these abuses of power.

Trump seems to not understand US defamation and libel laws, and when he claims that he will strengthen or change them, he essentially restates them as they are. He is also in (yet again) a trap of his own design, as he is a fulminant liar and defamer, with cases against him in court now, while his lawyers have filed others.

Alternatives to US defamation laws aren't fantastic. In the UK, being sued for defamation is much more likely given the standard, which eliminates the qualification of intent or foreknowledge. All that must be proved is that a defaming statement was made. Truth is a defense at least. Elsewhere, defamation can lead to anything from lawsuits to jail to assassination.

Another new approach Trump has introduced to gagging those around him into self-censorship is apparently placing government employees under private NDAs with Trump and his organization. This dubious practice probably wouldn't hold up in court if tested. However, it is another chilling effect.

This has all led to what appears to be a condemnation by Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona renowned for a floor speech condemning Trump as he announced he would not seek re-election. In an announced speech this week, Flake plans to compare Trump and his enablers to Stalin and his enablers. 

This comes in the same week that Trump plans to convey his invented "Fake News Awards," which may cause multiple lawsuits against White House staff who assist in any way, as ethics rules preclude them from using their positions or government resources in this manner. Trump has also signaled that Fox News is exempt from the awards, likely because of the well-documented path from Fox to Trump to Twitter.

As with libel, Trump knows of what he speaks with "fake news" as he is a major purveyor. 

Trump is a danger to free speech, and fits a pattern of media manipulation. To see the US dragged into the shadow of censorship is disturbing. It cannot be tolerated. Totalitarians seek to control the press because they are afraid of it. Citizens should embrace the free press precisely because it protects them from totalitarians.

We're the ones playing with fire.