President Donald Trump complains about news coverage incessantly, but on Thursday he took it to a whole new level. Trump raised the specter of taking the New York Times to court.
Here’s the tweet:
The New York Post op-ed by John Crudele that Trump cited is fairly conspiratorial, essentially defending Trump’s disproved claim that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
This isn’t the first time Trump has suggested this kind of thing, previously saying on the campaign trail that he wants to “open up” libel laws to go after the press. He went on: “So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they're totally protected.”
Setting aside that there are no federal libel laws for Trump to change or open up, this is a clear affront to First Amendment protections for free speech and media. The press is purposely given a lot of leeway in the US Constitution — as long as it’s not printing something it knows is false or with “reckless disregard” as to whether it’s false — to write about and criticize public figures, especially someone like the president.
The Supreme Court has ruled on this several times, with perhaps the most famous case being New York Times Company v. Sullivan. Without this freedom, the press would be stifled, since it would be unable to run anything critical of the president or other public figures without fearing a crippling lawsuit.
This offhand tweet shouldn’t be dismissed. This is the president of the United States advocating the rollback of key American institutions and values — the First Amendment, free speech, and freedom of the press. Making such threats to the foundation of America’s democracy is a move toward illiberalism. It’s not just a tweet.