Presidential Attacks on the Press
President Donald Trump’s habit of hurling invectives at the press is disturbing. It undermines the work of the press and breaks long-standing norms that presidents show respect for the role of the Fourth Estate. But insults alone rarely raise First Amendment issues. Presidents have long used the bully pulpit to respond to or criticize news reports. Even Trump’s near daily verbal assaults on reporters and news organizations can be considered part of our country’s “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” marketplace of ideas. Presidents have opinions too, and journalists should be able to handle his rants.
Yet there are also times when Trump’s lashing out at the press go beyond mere name-calling, and he instead attempts to use the power of his presidency to punish or silence press organizations that displease him. In these instances, Trump is unsheathing an entirely different kind of weapon. When a president crosses the line from insulting the press to turning the wheels of government as a means to retaliate against news organizations for their reporting, the potential First Amendment violations become very real.
The goals of this short Article are modest. It seeks simply to differentiate the various ways Trump has attacked the press, to emphasize that we should not view them all through the same constitutional lens, and to bring attention to the most serious type of offense. Unsurprisingly, it is Trump’s attempts to employ the power of the federal government to retaliate against the press that raise the most troubling constitutional concerns.