If Donald Trump were capable of graceful elocution, this might be how he’d phrase his feelings about those he perceives to be America’s internal enemies:
“There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.”
In fact, those words were delivered more than a century ago by another U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, whose views on unfaithful foreigners in our midst and on the perfidious press prefigured those of Trump. Indeed, it was Wilson who exhorted Congress to give the Justice Department greater powers to prosecute seditious speech and censor the press in the interest of “public safety.”
In 1917, Wilson signed the Espionage Act into law, and it is this constitutionally dubious legislation that some observers fear will give Trump the power he desires to harass — or, worse, legally silence — his critics in the Fourth Estate.
One expert who raises this possibility is Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment lawyer celebrated for successfully defending the New York Times’ right to publish the classified Pentagon Papers pertaining to the war in Vietnam.
Abrams has been touring the country to promote his new book, “The Soul of the First Amendment,” and he spoke recently with The Star’s editorial board.
Abrams warned that reporters might fall under the Espionage Act microscope if the administration sees their work as in conflict with national security. After all, Trump is well-known for his assertions that the “fake news media” is “an enemy of the American people.”
Interestingly, those sentiments, often expressed in outraged tweets, might ultimately serve as a defense for journalists, as they show Trump’s pattern of extreme personal sensitivity to any criticism at all. It would not be difficult to demonstrate that any clampdown had less to do with public safety than with Trump’s ego.
And then there’s the ink, which the press buys by the barrel as the saying goes. It can also afford the best legal counsel, such as Abrams.
But what about the legions of aspiring mini-Trumps, the elected officials major and minor across the land who observe the president flout the rule of law and regard it as a green light for their own authoritarian tendencies?
Texas offers a chilling example this week in the actions of Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy E. Nehls. The sheriff was outraged by reports of a pickup truck seen around this suburban hinterland of Houston, the wealthiest county in Texas, with a sticker on its rear window reading, “F--- Trump and f--- you for voting for him.”
Nehls posted a picture of the truck on a personal Facebook page, bragging that a county prosecutor had agreed to charge the truck’s owner with disorderly conduct. That created an avalanche of publicity, and the Republican county prosecutor denied that the case would be prosecutable. Nehls deleted the post, but a woman who shares the truck with her husband was arrested — not for the sticker but for an unrelated outstanding warrant. The American Civil Liberties Union has offered her help.
Did I mention that Nehls is pondering a run for Congress?
The national mood is such Nehls’ little escapade got shut down pretty quickly. But you have to wonder about other instances where someone’s First Amendment rights will be trampled because the Mayberry Machiavelli doing the trampling isn’t so brazen and stupid about it.
This is exactly why, as Abrams says, the public needs to reaffirm both its understanding of and respect for the First Amendment. As in the Vietnam War era, those in political power will appeal to national security to evade scrutiny, criticism and exposure.
Yet, increasingly, all of us struggle to find the balance between the right of fellow citizens to express vile views and the legitimate concern for public safety and the rights of individuals to be safe from threats to their personal safety. Remember the white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville, Va., to assert their race hatred? One of them ended up murdering a counterdemonstrator, and others committed lesser acts of violence and intimidation.
We live in interesting times. Too many people — from Trump to sheriffs to possibly your neighbor — believe it’s legitimate to outlaw or suppress expression contrary to their own views.
That’s un-American, if anything is. You may find it offensive. You may find it personally insulting. But protected speech must remain protected, or the America we love will cease to be.