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Trump, Free Speech, and Libertarianism

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There is a modest amount of crossover between populism and libertarianism — as there is between libertarianism and other political philosophies — but leftists and progressives should hesitate before lumping us into the same category. For the most part populists are just big-government conservatives — which means they have more in common with the political Left than with us freedom-loving libertarians.

It would be difficult to find a better example of this than the president’s views on free speech and a free press — and a dangerous new trend that finds leftists ironically embracing censorship in the name of “anti-fascism.” As we will see, neither the president nor the Left really gives a damn about free speech.

During his campaign and in the months following the inauguration Donald Trump has howled endlessly about fake news and the media conspiracy against him. There is no doubt that the media establishment is in a state of collapse and its credibility, long in decline, is now sinking like a rock in water.

CNN in particular flushed what was left of its reputation when debate questions were passed in advance to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. That, and the endless train of Russia-collusion conspiracy theories and other stories of questionable authenticity — always anti-Trump — pouring out of that and other so-called news agencies indicate that the president does have a legitimate gripe. It’s how he proposes to deal with the problem that should worry us.

Tweeting early in October, the president took direct aim at the media. After NBC published a negative story about him, Trump attacked the network, saying, “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write. People should look into it.” Leaving no doubt of what he intended by that worrying statement, he added, “Why isn’t the Senate Intel Committee looking into the Fake News Networks in our country…?”

That can mean only one thing: The head of the Executive Branch has no understanding of the First Amendment, and wants the power of the federal government put to work punishing people who say things he doesn’t like.

Like it or not, the press has an absolute right to “write whatever it wants to write,” and the media in general have an equal right to say and broadcast whatever they believe is “fit to print,” as the New York Times claims for its standard (its questionable commitment to that standard notwithstanding). That’s precisely why so many Americans in the Founding era wanted a federal amendment to the Constitution — the First Amendment — expressly forbidding Congress to pass a law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Barring libel or physical threats, it is the duty of news organizations to publish any and all stories they believe are of interest to readers or viewers. Allegations that known falsehoods have been published is a matter for a civil courtroom, not Congress.

Furthermore, let us remind the president that we still live in a (relatively) free society; if readers or viewers have serious doubts about the integrity of their news providers then they can change the channel, buy a different paper, or visit another website. It is the job of consumers, not the president, to punish an errant media — by withholding their patronage. It would be hard to find less regulated media than “social media,” yet the president himself admitted their indispensability in a Fox News interview on October 21. “I doubt I would be [president] if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” he told Maria Bartiromo. Commenting on his use of Twitter, he added, “When somebody says something about me, I am able to go bing, bing, bing, and I take care of it. [Without it] I would never get the word out.”

Of course “getting the word out” would be the first thing to go the way of the dodo if news networks lose the freedom to criticize political leaders. Anyone who doubts that social media would be next is exercising a naivete bordering on criminal negligence.

The FCC

 Responding to Trump’s threat, Michael Copps, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, downplayed the idea that the president could silence a media giant like NBC. “This madcap threat, if pursued, would be [a] blatant and unacceptable intervention in the decisions of [the FCC],” he said. “The law does not countenance such interference [and] I think the American people would strip [Trump] of his clothes on this issue.” Well, maybe not; the New York Daily News reported on October 11, “Thousands of television viewers have filed complaints with the FCC this year over news coverage of Trump and demanded the agency strip stations of their licenses” [emphasis mine]. If the mob has its way, our free press is as dead as Johannes Gutenberg.

Fortunately such an action by the president or Congress probably would fail in court. Yet Copps did acknowledge that smaller local television stations “might lack the resources to fight back” against intensive federal interference. And that’s really the important point to remember: Big or small, no one has the resources to fight a prolonged legal battle against such a behemoth as the federal government. The mere insinuation alone that the FCC or Congress might be inclined to take some punitive regulatory action would have a chilling effect on free speech.

For radio and television broadcasters, the FCC is God. Created in 1934, it was a logical offspring of the Federal Radio Commission created in 1927, and to this day remains the legal agency controlling broadcast airwaves. In her 1964 essay “The Property Status of Airwaves,” Ayn Rand accurately questioned the underlying motive behind these federal regulatory bodies, writing that their creation

did not confine the government to the role of a traffic policeman of the air who protects the rights of broadcasters from technical interference (which is all that was needed and all that a government should properly do). It established service to the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” as the criterion by which the [regulating body] was to judge applicants for broadcasting licenses and accept or reject them. Since there is no such thing as the “public interest” (other than the sum of the individual interests of individual citizens), since that collectivist catch-phrase has never been and can never be defined, it amounted to a blank check on totalitarian power over the broadcasting industry, granted by whatever bureaucrats happened to be appointed to the Commission.

Before dismissing Rand’s concerns as hyperbole or paranoia, remember that government has exercised control over the press and media in the past when it felt the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” was at issue. Abraham Lincoln jailed newspaper editors who criticized his war on the Confederacy. Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act made it a crime to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane … or abusive language” about the U.S. government or its foreign policy. During the FBI’s 1993 Waco standoff, a reporter who criticized the government’s actions found his credentials revoked. Even less well-known is the British Broadcasting Corporation’s acquiescence, at the behest of government officials, in covering up reports of collusion between British security forces and Loyalist death squads in Northern Ireland. The fact that a broadcaster has a license at all betrays the ability of a central government to revoke that license — and shut down dissent.

Early in Trump’s presidency, so-called progressives began sounding an alarm, warning that he intended to wage war on the First Amendment. But their “fire bell in the night” moment of clarity smacks more of political opportunism than of a principled stand.

Terrorism and hate speech

 Leftists have a rather questionable pedigree on this issue, especially of late. For years now a progressive group calling itself “antifa” — for anti-fascist — has been fascistically threatening and even physically attacking conservative, populist, and libertarian speakers visiting college campuses, with little or no condemnation from Democrats. At the University of Minnesota-Morris, a college radio program, “College Deplorable,” was threatened with cancellation after a host used the word “tyranny.” The Daily Mail reported on October 30 of “growing ties” between the violent “Resistance” — leftist and progressive agitators — and groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, who aren’t exactly known for their tolerance of liberal values. Twitter and Facebook regularly ban nonleftists. (FFF’s Jim Bovard wrote about this in USA Today on October 27.) Ann Ravel, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission — and a Democrat — floated the idea of fining readers who share “fake news” about political candidates, according to a report in the Washington Examiner (October 18). An opinion piece on CNN.com in November called for banning the term “fake news” altogether. A YouGov poll in 2015 revealed that 51 percent of Democrats support a ban on “hate speech” — compared with 35 percent of Independents and 37 percent of Republicans.

European progressives often act as a bellwether for boneheaded ideas of this sort. For example, in September the European Union said it would “pass laws allowing the EU to impose punishments on companies” like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Google that fail to promptly remove “hate speech” identified by users, CNN reported. A similar law was actually passed in Germany and enforcement began on January 1. Despite an alarming spike in violent crime, police in the United Kingdom are instead focusing their resources on those who post online commentary that might “cause annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety to another,” the Times reported on October 12. An estimated nine people per day are arrested for such offenses, approximately half of which actually lead to a prosecution. The Evening Standard reported on December 7 that London police will begin “cracking down on gender-based hate crimes,” including even harmless acts such as “wolf whistling,” and the British government’s Committees of Advertising Practice announced that it will ban ads containing “harmful and outdated” depictions of gender-roles, such as women cleaning, according to a Breitbart News report on December 14.

Only libertarians have solid bona fides on this matter, firmly and consistently calling for the abolition of the FCC and opposing any restrictions on peaceful speech, regardless of the medium used or the popularity of the speech in question. In the essay referenced above, Rand rightly warned, “When censorship of radio and television becomes fully accepted … it will not be long before all the other media — books, magazines, newspapers, lectures — follow suit.” Writing in 1973, in For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard called “free expression in broadcasting” a “sham” because

the federal government, as the licensor of the airwaves, asserts the right and the power to regulate the stations minutely and continuously. Thus, over the head of each station is the club of the threat of non-renewal, or even suspension, of its license. In consequence, the idea of freedom of speech in radio and television is no more than a mockery.

President Trump — and no shortage of his leftist detractors —would happily have it so.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Future of Freedom.

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