No, Trump is not planning to gut the First Amendment

No, Trump is not planning to gut the First Amendment

Reince Priebus sat down with ABC’s Jonathan Karl this weekend for yet another interview and managed to send the liberal enclaves of the nation to their battle stations yet again. Much of the segment covered a variety of useful topics on foreign policy, tax cuts and the legislative agenda. Nothing too noteworthy there, really. But Karl had to sneak in one question which was sure to drive some clicks on their web site and it had to do with Fake News and whether or not the White House should be able to sue outlets like the New York Times for lousy coverage. Claiming that a change to libel laws would require a change to the First Amendment, Karl asked Priebus if that was something that was on the table. His answer wasn’t exactly crystal clear.

KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?

PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—

KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?

PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.

That was all it took for the Left to douse their own hair in lighter fluid and break out the matches. One of the leaders of that combustible pack was Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo who dashed to the ramparts with a piece carrying the alarming title, Priebus: Trump Considering Amending or Abolishing 1st Amendment. What follows is a tantalizing example of reading what you want into an interview. (Emphasis in original)

Karl says, accurately, that that kind of clampdown on 1st Amendment rights would require amending the Constitution. Is that what Priebus means, Karl asks? Yes, it is, says Priebus.

Now one might respond to this saying, ‘Okay, technically that’s what he said. But he probably doesn’t actually mean it.’

To which I think the answer is, sure maybe he doesn’t mean but why would anyone assume that? He said it and repeated it. The changes President Trump wants are blocked by decades of decades of jurisprudence which is little contested, unlike other hot button points of constitutional law. If you want what Trump wants, you have to amend the constitution – and not the constitution in general but the 1st Amendment specifically. Amending the 1st Amendment to allow the head of state to sue people who say things he doesn’t like amounts to abolishing it.

That’s just a classic case of reading the tea leaves in a muddled segment of a discussion and finding what you wanted to hear. First of all, just listening to Reince’s tone during that portion of the interview you could tell he was tired of the entire conversation and was tossing out a throwaway line. But the question Karl asks staggers a bit and takes in a couple of hypotheticals. He specifically asks the question of whether or not the President was serious about “changing the libel laws.” He follows that up with his own inserted supposition that it would require a constitutional amendment, something Trump didn’t mention in the tweet in question. Priebus, with the aforementioned exhausted tone in his voice says, “I think that’s something we’ve looked at.”

You think? And specifically what is it that you think you’ve looked at? The default answer, absent any further clarification from Priebus, was that they may have looked at changing the libel laws. Just for the record, Congress doesn’t require a constitutional amendment to change any laws. Granted, the change may be immediately challenged and subsequently shot down in the courts if it goes too far, but that doesn’t stop them from changing them initially. In fact, Reince’s next sentence goes on to say “how that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere” is up in the air. I’m pretty sure he knows how the Constitution is amended so it seems rather obvious that he was talking about the libel laws, not a constitutional amendment.

All of this leaves aside the fact that we’re talking about something so far off in fantasy land that neither Priebus nor Trump would be “seriously” talking about it anyway. (Which doesn’t preclude some early morning tweets on the subject, I’m sure.) Nobody is going to support gutting or eliminating the First Amendment. Suggesting that they are is just a sad form of hyperbole from the cheerleaders of a Democratic Party in disarray and flummoxed over what to do when fighting from the minority. I’m sure Josh can find plenty of other things that the President is actually doing or proposing to complain about until the cows come home. There’s no need to invent new bits of red meat out of thin air.

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