The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, especially the section regarding “freedom of speech,” has been a subject of contention in the modern political landscape. The amendment prevents the government from making laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion or restrict the right to peaceably assemble, the right to petition the government, the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press. Recent disagreements between the Trump administration and the news network CNN have brought the maybe overlooked latter part of the amendment to the forefront of political discourse.
The White House pulled CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass after a news conference during which Acosta asked multiple questions of the president and brushed aside a White House staffer when she attempted to take his microphone. Almost a week later CNN filed a lawsuit against President Trump and some top White House aides, asserting that taking Acosta’s credentials was a violation of “CNN and Acosta’s First Amendment rights of freedom of the press, and their Fifth Amendment rights to due process.”
This egregious misuse of power by the White House and Trump administration paints a frightening picture for the future of the rights of not only the press, but also the citizens of the United States. The First Amendment guarantees that citizens and the media have the right to be openly critical of the government without the fear of governmental retaliation.
If the First Amendment’s freedom of press clause can be ignored by the federal government, where does it end? The press has access to the White House to report facts about the federal government’s decisions and actions to the citizens of the United States, who those decisions and actions affect. If the White House can control which journalists it speaks to, it can effectively control the output of news to the general public. Control of journalists means control of facts reaching United States citizens.
Even the news network Fox News, a two-decade conservative rival to CNN, understood the magnitude of the White House’s decision. In a statement issued by the network, Fox said, “Secret Service passes for working White House journalists should never be weaponized.” A snap judgment on one journalist, even one who works for a center-liberal network like CNN, does not foreshadow any sympathy on a right-wing journalist in the future if they also displease the Trump administration.
There have been several times in United States history when the First Amendment was subject to acts and subsequent Supreme Court rulings that jailed United States citizens for being communists, socialists or anarchists. To have the highest-ranking official in the United States government bypass even a court ruling to silence a journalist for asking too many questions is a step too far.
The freedom of the press was ignored in this instance. Next may be the freedom of speech, targeting individual citizens for their criticism of the government. In that case, will the targeted individual need to file a lawsuit against the federal government? Acosta had CNN and other major news networks on his side. An individual citizen may not have that kind of legal power.
US District Court Judge Timothy Kelly ruled in favor of Acosta and CNN on Friday, Nov. 16. Kelly said he was not making a judgment on the First Amendment claims of the lawsuit, but instead on the Fifth Amendment right of due process. Due process maintains that the government must provide some measure of process when revoking a citizen’s rights — usually this looks like a court case.
The White House fully restored Acosta’s press pass on Monday, and CNN signaled that it would drop the lawsuit in response. The two-week legal battle resulted in a begrudging come down from the Trump administration’s tantrum. It did not result in an apology for violating the rights of a journalist, and a United States citizen at that. The freedom of the press is just as important as the freedom of speech with respect to interactions with the government, and journalists and citizens alike should not take this ruling lightly.