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.
Quoted above is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It guarantees every American the right to express themselves without fear of punishment from the government and preserves freedom of speech and the press. And it is arguably the most important sentence in the founding documents of our nation.
It's also incredibly misunderstood by many Americans.
Despite countless cries of "you're violating my constitutional rights," the First Amendment does not mean you can attend a Nazi rally and not be fired by your employer. It does not protect you from having your blog taken down or your Facebook post removed for racist comments. And no, it doesn't even prevent you from being punished by your boss for protesting during the national anthem. It protects you from government censorship or punishment, but it doesn't excuse you from the consequences of your actions.
You would think Donald Trump would appreciate that more than anybody.
After all, this a man who has made a career out of making racist, demeaning, and flat-out false statements. And as despicable as it may be for him to talk about how he "moved on her like a bitch," lie about Obama's birth certificate, attack a Gold Star family, mock a disabled reporter, or make any of the other horrid comments that come out of his mouth or his Twitter account every day, it is his constitutionally protected right to say those things.
So when Trump gets in front of a camera and says that "it's disgusting" that the American press "can write whatever they want to write," it's equal parts mind-boggling and terrifying. After all, this is a guy who made his name on saying whatever he wants, consequences be damned.
It's no secret that Trump's ego both demands unconditional love and fuels his hatred when he isn't represented in a manner that he deems to be "fair." His campaign rallies always included vicious verbal attacks on the journalists covering the events, calling them "bad people" who are "bad for America." To Trump, all negative coverage of him is "fake news" and those networks and reporters that dare to speak against him are undermining our very nation.
The rhetoric coming from Trump regarding the way others express themselves has always been harsh, but lately it has taken on a much more fascistic tone. The president seems to be trying to use the presidency and its bully pulpit to quash speech that he considers to be "un-American."
It started with his attacks on the NFL protestors. Obviously, this is a topic that has divided a lot of people. (For my take on it, check out my piece on the Charm City Sports Network). Trump has inflamed the issue by attacking the players protesting and lambasting the league for allowing it. Again, while we may disagree, Trump has a right to his opinion on this topic. However, when Trump took to Twitter to suggest that the NFL should lose its "massive tax breaks" due to the perceived lack of patriotism of its employees, it became an entirely different matter. This isn't a citizen expressing his opinion. This is a government official hinting at government sanctions on a private company and its employees because those employees are enacting their right to protest. That's not free speech. That's fascism. (And the fact that Trump again has no clue what he's talking about, since the NFL's "massive tax breaks" ended in 2015 when they changed their tax status, does nothing to lessen the gravity of his statement).
In recent days, the downward spiral has continued. Trump appears to have suggested a return of the Fairness Doctrine when he whined that he wasn't given "equal time" on late night talk shows (despite the fact that the ending of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan in 1987 led directly to the rise of right-wing media juggernauts like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and others). Today, he hinted at challenging NBC's broadcast license because they reported "fake news" that was "bad for [the] country."
More and more, Trump is pushing for government involvement in what the press, private businesses, and American citizens can and cannot say. And it is up to us to stand up and make it perfectly clear that we will not tolerate this dangerous attack on the most important right in any democracy: the right to criticize those in power and hold them accountable for their actions. When the most powerful man in the country so openly despises such criticism, it becomes all the more crucial that we ensure that this right remains sacrosanct.