Trump 'Trying to Get Us Back to a Free Press'

In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Rudolph Giuliani declared that “It is refreshing and it is very good for our democracy that we have a president that is trying to get us back to a free press.” Giuliani added that Donald Trump “may actually re-establish journalistic ethics.”

I don’t supposed it occurred to Hannity to say “But Mr. Giuliani, the constitutional right to freedom of the press is all about preventing the government from infringing on press freedom. It’s not a president’s role to decide what a free press is. That’s what dictatorships do.”

But  autocracy is in, and it will advance itself by taking advantage of weaknesses and controversies wherever it can find them—including Buzzfeed’s decision to drop the traditional journalistic practice of verification and publish unsubstantiated claims about Trump.

Giuliani, whose style and experience as mayor of New York seem to be a strong influence on Trump, has long shown poor judgment when it comes to First Amendment freedoms. When he was mayor, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in 2000 that took the highly unusual tack of noting that beyond the case at hand, there was a disturbing pattern of First Amendment rulings against the city.

"We would be ostriches if we failed to take judicial notice of the heavy stream of First Amendment litigation generated by New York City in recent years,” the judges wrote before outlining twenty of the many First Amendment rulings made against the city during Giuliani’s mayoralty.  

They included rulings against the Giuliani administration for barring the Latino Officers Association from marching in parades under its own banner; for blocking plans for a Million Youth March; for barring city employees from speaking to the media without permission; for blocking the display of a bus ad that made fun of the mayor; for unconstitutional limits on the rights of sidewalk artists; for retaliating against a non-profit housing group that was critical of the mayor; for trying to evict the Brooklyn Museum from its city-owned building for exhibiting artwork the mayor deemed anti-Catholic; for regulating newsstands in a way that violated free speech; for limiting press conferences on the steps of City Hall to 25 people.

The pattern is that Giuliani tried to use the power of government to suppress speech he found disagreeable.  

Trump & Co. are relying on the public not to care. Trump said as much in his news conference when the subject of his unreleased tax returns came up: “The only ones that care about my tax returns are the reporters.”

But, to borrow the court’s language, “we would be ostriches” if we fail to see the implication of the attacks Trump is making on the news media.

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Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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