Where Freedom of Speech Meets the First Amendment

Where Freedom of Speech Meets the First Amendment

President Donald Trump makes ludicrous and outlandish statements on such a recurrent basis that we have almost (almost!) become desensitized to his words. However, with the release Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the author provides the world with a behind-the-scenes perspective of what life really looks like inside the wacky world of a Trump presidency—and it’s more contentious than anything Trump himself has ever uttered.

After an excerpt of the book was released in New York magazine, Trump’s team responded to Wolff’s allegations in a highly controversial way. His attorney, Charles Harder, sent the publisher a cease-and-desist letter, claiming the book contained “false and baseless statements”, thereby alleging the book contains libellous information.

The publisher, Henry Holt & Co., read the letter (probably thought to themselves, “Censorship.Sucks”) and released the book four days early. In just under a month, the book sold over 1.7 million copies.

This tense stream of events leads us to ask: where does the line fall between censorship and libel? And when does an act of censorship actually violate the First Amendment?

What is the First Amendment?

In order to gain a proper understanding of this issue, it’s crucial to first have a clear idea of what exactly the First Amendment is. Adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments of the U.S. Bill of Rights, the First Amendment states:

“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.”

In layman’s terms, this amendment declares that the government will not interfere with or set any restrictions or limitations to what the people wish to publish, read or worship, nor will the government stop the public from gathering together and asking the government to right the wrongs in society.

At its heart, the message embedded in this amendment is that it will stand to protect individuals and society from governments who might try to suppress ideas and information through the censorship of books, magazines, newspapers, film, music, art and—in this day and age—material on the internet. So, by understanding censorship as the intentional suppression of ideas and information, it’s clear why the circus surrounding Fire and Fury’s publication is creating an interesting state of affairs in today’s political landscape.

Libel vs. Freedom of Speech

The argument at the base of the book’s publication is whether it exhibits freedom of speech or is a libelous attack on Trump and a defamation of character. While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, defamation laws protect people from having untrue and damaging statements made about them. As you can expect, it is a delicate balancing act and is at the core of legal cases claiming libel (written defamation) and slander (oral defamation).

When it comes to public officials, things get a little blurry. For public officials to win a libel case, they must not only prove that the statements made were false, but that these statements were made with “actual malice”, meaning that the speaker either knew the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false. This is because the law puts more emphasis on encouraging free speech than protecting those who willingly put themselves in the public eye.

Therefore, what this particular story comes down to is this: while Trump has the right to call the news “fake“, his demand to cease and desist publication violates the First Amendment unless he is able to prove Wolff’s claims were false and made with the knowledge they were false. And with Wolff maintaining he was “in every way comfortable with everything I’ve reported in this book” and that he has recordings and notes related to the information he published, it seems unlikely that Trump will have any success in this attempt to quash free speech.

The First Amendment Today

The question then becomes: in today’s exceedingly sensitive world, how can you practice your First Amendment rights without having to worry about a thin skinned President deciding to sue you? Well, you can resist this pretty lacking government with a few simple steps:

  1. Creating a good looking website can expand your influence and legitimacy (perhaps DonaldTrump.Sucks?)
  2. Find your unique voice. A .SUCKS domain allows you to stand out from the crowd and have your message actually find an audience.

If you take nothing else from Trump’s latest tantrum, at least find comfort in knowing that one of the most explosive examples of a president trying to censor the media came during Nixon’s administration, when President Richard Nixon attempted to block the Washington Post and The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers—and we all know how that turned out.

A .SUCKS domain can be your best defence against those trying to dilute your First Amendment rights. Become empowered by publishing your voice with a .SUCKS domain today.

Photo Credits: Shutterstock / a katz, Shutterstock / a katz, Shutterstock / Crush Rush, Shutterstock / Silatip