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Perfectly imperfect: Our First Amendment

🕐 3 min read

What a perfectly sloppy piece of writing we have with the First Amendment.

Anyone can say just about anything they want to say about anybody or any subject in this country and have a good chance of smooth sailing.

It – that old First Amendment – is simply perfectly imperfect.

When someone is frustrated with something they see as a lie or half-truth they are quick to cry out, “libel, slander.” Sometimes they are correct, but proving it beyond a reasonable doubt or as having been done knowingly with malice is difficult.

If the First Amendment went just a step or two further and had more precise definition it might be harder to crack but it does not. It’s meant to give wide berth to all of us to express ourselves.

Now, there are those among us in the media who fear that President-elect Donald Trump will trifle with the First Amendment. In speeches, he has promised to make it easier for people to sue for libel and slander and he says, “win.”

He points to a number of stories published or broadcast during the election about him that he says were unfounded.

But, he won, right?

He would be hard-pressed to prove an adverse effect on his campaign.

The durability – and quite frankly – the flexibility of the U.S. Constitution is often cited as one of the strengths of this country. Because of that durability, it is difficult to imagine either Trump or anyone else being able to rewrite any part of it.

On Nov. 28, Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron received the Hitchens Award in New York City. The award is named for the late Cristopher Hitchens who wrote for Vanity Fair magazine and it honors Hitchens’ legacy for writing and reporting and often criticizing without fear of retaliation and retribution that would stick.

In accepting the award, Baron noted that free speech may come under yet more attacks from Trump. And he quoted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also now owns the Washington Post, in his defense of a free press and free speech. Bezos and the Post have been frequent targets of Trump’s ire with the press.

Here is what Bezos, a newcomer to media, is reported to have said about freedom of speech. He captures its spirit well.

“We want a society” he is quoted as saying, “where any of us, any individual in this country, any institution in this country, if they choose to, can scrutinize, examine, and criticize an elected official, especially a candidate, especially a candidate for the highest office in the most powerful country on earth …”

He is also quoted as saying, “We have fundamental laws and … we have Constitutional rights in this country to free speech. But that’s not the whole reason that it works here. We also have cultural norms that support that, where you don’t have to be afraid of retaliation. And those cultural norms are at least as important as the Constitution.”

Trump is showing a knack to reversing some of his campaign rhetoric and backing off on some of his harshest statements and even his “promises.” He is proving quite nimble at surprise with some Cabinet picks.

He will not negatively affect the First Amendment because he is, among all things, practical, and those “cultural norms,” Bezos spoke of are in place. The translation is this: We the People will not let him.

Richard Connor
Richard Connor is the owner and CEO/Publisher of DRC Media, the parent company of the Fort Worth Business Press. he also owns newspapers in Virginia. Mr. Connor held a number of corporate media executive positions before founding his own company. He is an award-winning columnist and at one time wrote a weekly column on national politics for CQ Politics, the online version of Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Quarterly.

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