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Who Is the Real Threat to the First Amendment?


by Peter Thomas, Chairman, The Conservative Caucus

There has been much recent hype about an alleged threat to the First Amendment from President Trump.  Even a quick look at history will show that other presidents, many of them praised by the same people who attack Trump, did much more to undermine our First Amendment freedoms.

Abraham Lincoln personally ordered the military to suppress two newspapers, the New York World and New York Journal of Commerce and to “imprison in any fort or military prison in your command, the editors, proprietors, and publishers” on the grounds that they were guilty of publishing fake news.  By that standard, President Trump could have forcibly closed much of the mainstream media for falsely reporting that FBI Director James Comey had never assured the President that Trump was not under investigation (Comey admitted to having told Trump just that on three occasions).  Fortunately, President Trump showed far more restraint and tolerance than Lincoln.

John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798, which David McCullough described as “the most reprehensible act of his presidency”.  The Adams administration then proceeded to fourteen prosecutions for criticizing the government.   One man was arrested and charged simply because he circulated a petition calling for the repeal of the Sedition Act.

Woodrow Wilson went well beyond Adams.  After giving his approval to the anti-free speech provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, more than 2,000 people were prosecuted.  Black activist Philip Randolph was arrested and Socialist Eugene Debs was convicted and jailed for criticizing Wilson’s war policy.  (A judge dismissed the charges against Randolph and Debs was pardoned by Harding.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt followed the same pattern.  He insisted on silencing twenty-eight Americans by prosecuting them for conspiring with the Nazis, even though Attorney General Biddle told him that there was no evidence for the charge and he would not be able to obtain a conviction.  (Although the government was able to drag out the case for years, a judge finally dismissed it.)

Even Thomas Jefferson, who pardoned those convicted under the Sedition Act of 1798 and is the author of many statements asserting the inviolability of the freedoms spelled out in the First Amendment, was not immune to the temptation to punish his critics.  While foregoing any Federal government action, Jefferson privately and secretly urged a political ally in Pennsylvania to carry out state-level “prosecutions of the most prominent offenders” and helpfully enclosed an example of one newspaper he recommended for prosecution.

We should be grateful that voters rejected Hillary Clinton, who would have been the most anti-First Amendment president in American history.  She promised to promote a constitutional amendment that would have given Congress the power to restrict freedom of speech.  She supported the Obama policy of forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations to carry out actions that would have been a violation of their religious beliefs.  She spoke of the need to use the force of law to change “deep-seated cultural codes” and “religious beliefs”.

It would be better if President Trump would show more restraint in what he says and tweets.  However, we must not forget that he has consistently shown more restraint than his predecessors when it comes to action.

The Conservative Caucus, a project of Americans for Constitutional Liberty, is a public policy organization, contributions to which are not tax deductible. The IRS has determined ACL to be a 501(c)(4) organization, exempt from Federal income tax. Contributions to ACL are not subject to FEC regulation or disclosure requirements, and corporate donations are permitted.

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