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  • First Amendment, First Defense, First Casualty

    warwick-post-commentaryThree days after America elected a new president in Donald J. Trump, notorious for insulting the service of war hero Sen. John McCain and threatening the First Amendment rights provided by the Constitution, Warwick honored the local veterans who risked their lives, as the Senator did, defending those rights.

    Warwick veterans were split as to whether Trump’s talk was serious, or intentional, but it’s now evident Trump’s ambition to undermine respect for service and sacrifice, the rule of law and confidence in the free press was not only more serious, but sneakier than many realized.

    Trump had denigrated war hero Sen. John McCain, a naval pilot who was a prisoner of war for six years during the Vietnam War, but Warwick Veterans Council Chaplain Jim Hickey, who served in the Air Force from 1962 – 1966, was forgiving that Veterans Day.

    “It was a cat and dog fight,” Hickey said of Trump’s comment about McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured,” and the President’s behavior in general during the campaign. When asked about Trump’s stated intent to weaken the First Amendment, that he wanted to open up libel laws, making it easier to sue journalists for reporting the news, “You can’t do that, actually,” Hickey said.

    “He can’t,” agreed Baggesen, “He won’t be able to.” If Trump tried to weaken the First Amendment, he said, people would protest in the streets and stop him.

    But Trump can weaken the First Amendment, and he has. He started doing that before he was even elected, with his “fake news” retort to whatever news story he didn’t like.

    Shortly after being sworn in, Trump accused the press of being an “enemy of the American people,” taking a page from dictators including Stalin and Hitler, who also sought to demonize their critics, and create confusion about what is factual and true.

    It’s catching on nationally.

    A recent AP story, ‘Fake news’ smear takes hold among politicians at all levels chronicles the many ways politicians are deflecting news stories they find inconvenient with simple utterance of the words, “fake news.”

    An Idaho state lawmaker urges entries for a “fake news awards,” the Kentucky governor tweets a “fake news” dismissal of stories exploring the propriety of a real estate deal.

    The theme, if not the words, found its way into Warwick politics last year during the school fire alarm scandal in the spring 2017, when Dist. 1 School Committee member and vice chairman Eugene Nadeau aimed to discredit a WarwickPost.com report quoting his lack of concern about the delay in notification of the community about broken fire alarms at Norwood and Holliman elementary schools.

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    “I received three emails during the past week and a half, and they all referenced something that they had read,” Nadeau told a packed Warwick School Committee meeting April 4, 2017.

    “It was a deliberate job on my defense of the Warwick School Department. Anybody that knows me, and has seen me in these schools, many times, during these past six years, has to know that never would’ve come out from me,” Nadeau said.

    Nadeau, whom the WarwickPost.com had interviewed many times, never directly contacted the publication about the story or his concerns, and never asked for, nor explained a reason for, a correction of the report. WarwickPost.com stands by the reporting.

    Last week, a disgruntled critic of the The Capital Gazette in Maryland shot and killed journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Wendi Winters and ad sales assistant Rebecca Smith in their office.

    Trump, who has railed against reporting he’d rather people didn’t read as fake news, and sought to paint members of the press as America’s enemies, dithered four days after the shooting before ordering the nation’s flags to half-staff on Tuesday. It was a conspicuous reluctance from a man so at odds with the very institution of the free press, and a message that Journalists’ deaths aren’t immediately worthy of national mourning in Trump’s opinion. Surely others will have noticed the delay.

    So while Trump doesn’t possess direct power to diminish the First Amendment in written law, he has been effective in blunting it socially.

    Weakening First Amendment protections is absolutely within the direct grasp of the Supreme Court, however.

    Trump recently appointed conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, a nomination the Constitution empowered President Barack Obama to make, that was unconstitutionally delayed by Sen. Mitch McConnell until Trump took office.

    Now, with the coming retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump has another chance to make an appointment to the Supreme Court, which will further cement his influence there, likely empowering his publicly stated designs on the First Amendment.

    The new makeup of the court, combined with the right case law, could undo the 1964 decision of Times vs. Sullivan, which requires public figures to prove that publications or authors acted with actual malice in printing false information.

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    According to The Bill of Rights Institute, in that decision, the Court asserted America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Free and open debate about the conduct of public officials, the Court reasoned, was more important than occasional, honest errors that might hurt or damage officials’ reputations.

    Without that decision guiding libel suits, honest errors made by publications seeking to print the truth might be often resolved with lawsuits rather than corrections. The change would absolutely restrain and endanger the diligent, honest reporting of publications across the nation, and diminish the crucial public debate that the republic depends on.

    Such a change was narrowly possible depending on the next Supreme Court nominee, according to a Washington Post opinion piece in 2016, when Trump had yet to appoint Gorsuch and the retirement of Kennedy did not appear a legitimate concern.

    On Veterans Day 2016, Dean Johnson, a Soldier’s Medal recipient, and Robert Baggesen, a Vietnam Veteran, were each certain that a Trump attack on the First Amendment would incur such public wrath that he wouldn’t dare try it.

    “The vets would take up their rifles and march in the street,” and honor their oaths to defend the country against all threats, foreign and domestic, Johnson said at the time.

    But Trump’s been sneakier than many expected. The damage was in progress as Warwick veterans spoke about the possible danger in 2016. It’s continued in the year and a half since.

    Veterans have yet to take to the streets in specific protest of Trump’s First Amendment attacks, but there have been several protests against many of Trumps policies and actions since the start of his presidency.

    But what America needs more than marches is involved, active, informed and vocal citizens. America needs voters.

    Trump will shortly have a second Supreme Court Justice who may be persuaded to see things his way on the protections provided a free press. From there, it will be a short time before the powerful and public servants need not fear the public’s opinion, wrath or votes.

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