Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free country, ample reason for the fathers of our Constitution to place the First Amendment at the top of our Bill of Rights. Without freedom of speech, all other rights would be toothless words. The authors did not waste words: “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.”
Disagreements on policies are eternal. Some representatives (Federalists) preferred a strong central government, while others (Anti-Federalists) were strong adherents for “States’ Rights,” giving all possible power to the individual states. Those favoring states’ rights, fearing an all-powerful central government, were responsible for the Bill of Rights.
The role of the federal government in our lives has expanded dramatically during the 200-plus years since our Constitution was adopted. Social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and many others were beyond the realm of even the most liberal politician’s imagination. While most citizens have approved of a greatly expanded “safety net,” there are many Anti-Federalists (conservatives) who do not. Such philosophical differences have led to much, sometimes angry debate. During times of war or peace, liberals and conservatives regularly disagree on the best policies. Naturally, a free press will “weigh in”; naturally, most people, including politicians, dislike criticism, resulting in occasionally successful efforts to silence the press.
No rational politician would dare suggest abolishing free speech, but some have trodden on it. Since the birth of our country, long prior to President Donald Trump’s nonstop criticism of most of the press as partisans spouting “fake news,” other politicians called the press dishonest or biased. Doubtlessly, much of the press is critical of Trump; that does not prove their criticisms are baseless. Trump has stated 91 percent of the press coverage of him has been negative, even though, according to him, his programs have greatly benefited our country. As with many of his claims, a 91 percent unfavorable rating seems inflated. For just one of several examples, Fox News, a major news source, has been a faithful Trump cheerleader.
Even some of his ardent supporters wish he would not tweet so much. A problem with his off-the-cuff remarks is he regularly reverses course, and thereby forces his spokeswoman to attempt to make conflicting statements appear reasonable. One source puts his contradictions or just plain lies in the hundreds. Trump may be the biggest beneficiary of our First Amendment: It includes no penalties for those issuing false statements, aka lies. Besides, one person’s truth can be another person’s lie. Our founding fathers wisely did not require free speech to be truthful. We would be in the same “camp” as Russia and other totalitarian countries if a quite possibly biased governmental agency decreed what were facts and what were lies.
Disagreements are guaranteed in a free country, so leaders should expect criticism. An unforgettable statement by President Harry Truman was, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Politics and over-sensitivity are incompatible.
President Trump is proof. He cruelly insults all who disagree with him; examples are legion, but his comment about Sen. John McCain stands out. McCain was badly injured after bailing out of his doomed jet over North Korea. Trump said he did not consider McCain a hero because he had been captured. Prior to Trump’s remark, McCain had stated he did not consider Trump fit to be president; questioning a candidate’s suitability is expected and justifiable. It would have been appropriate had Trump criticized McCain’s decisions as a U.S. senator, but insulting a heroic veteran who had been captured and tortured was shameful. Trump may have been unaware of the circumstances surrounding McCain’s capture; if so, that would confirm the opinions of many persons that Trump is not overly aware or concerned with history or facts. Nonetheless, our First Amendment protects him and all Americans, unless what they say constitutes a crime.
Despite the fact most of Trump’s advisers and all major countries, other than Israel, implored him not to cancel the nuclear treaty with Iran, saying it was complying with the treaty, he cancelled it, stating it was a “Terrible deal.” His actual reason may have been to discard one of President Barak Obama’s signature accomplishments, but his comment was protected free speech. Even if the U.S. withdrawal results in our getting involved with further military actions against Iran or, worse yet, conflict with Russia, Trump’s potentially catastrophic decision would not constitute a crime.
It should, however, for those who disagree with his cancellation of the nuclear agreement with Iran and numerous other actions, constitute a strong incentive to vote in November.
Understandably, some readers will dislike this column; we should resolve to disagree in a civil manner in a country committed to free speech.
Ted Shannon is a Mokelumne Hill resident and retired California Highway Patrol officer. Contact him at email@example.com.