President Donald Trump continued his apparent war on freedom of the press this week by threatening to have NBC’s broadcast license revoked after the network ran a news story he found unfavorable. According to the NBC story, Trump asked for a tenfold increase in the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Trump claims the story is completely contrived and made up.
So, when would it be appropriate to challenge a broadcast network’s license? First, let’s remove the giant elephant from the room. NBC doesn’t have a broadcast license. NBC produces content for its affiliate networks in each market. Each affiliate network is independently owned and has its own broadcast license, so revoking NBC’s license would actually involve stripping the broadcast rights away from hundreds of local television stations nationwide.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to Trump’s question about when it would be appropriate to revoke these licenses. The answer, according to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would be “it is never appropriate.”
The text of the First Amendment reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Constitution prohibits the government from abridging freedom of the press. A president who threatens to revoke broadcast licenses based on unfavorable press coverage, is essentially seeking to abridge freedom of the press.
The same day he sent that tweet, Trump was asked by reporters about his feelings and remarked that, “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.”
Actually, Mr. Trump, that is exactly what the First Amendment allows. When the founding fathers were talking about “the press” they weren’t talking about the news as we know it today. They were talking about the ability to circulate political pamphlets that questioned or criticized the government. The press that the founding fathers knew and fought for was opinionated and political and took a stance on issues. The founding fathers weren’t as concerned as we are now about accuracy in reporting or a balanced news report, they expected that publications would criticize the government openly and would be allowed to do so.
In fact, not only would it be unconstitutional for Donald Trump to direct the government to look into revoking broadcast licenses, it is possible that even threatening it was unconstitutional. The courts have ruled in the past that it is unconstitutional for a public official to try to abridge freedom of the press through “actual or threatened imposition of government power or sanction.”
Why would the courts come down on threatening the press, and why are journalists so upset about what may be an empty threat? Here’s the danger in Trump’s threat: The First Amendment protects freedom of the press, but it also protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government. If we start abridging freedom of the press, how long before freedom of speech gets abridged? How long before the president starts abridging the religious beliefs of faiths and denominations that disagree with him or that he doesn’t like? How long before the right to assemble or the right to petition the government is abridged?
You may not trust the media, and you may not like NBC, but if you want to make sure you always have freedom of speech for yourself and freedom of religion for yourself, you have to support a free press, even if you don’t always agree with it.