This weekend we saw President-elect Donald Trump lash out twice at Americans who were exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. His reaction should chill every American with its implication: A President Trump may well try to suppress speech.
On Friday night, Vice-President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the smash hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” where some in the crowd reportedly booed him. On Sunday, Pence acknowledged this: “When we arrived we heard a few boos, and we heard some cheers,” he said, “I nudged my kids and reminded them that is what freedom sounds like.” He’s right.
That wasn’t good enough for Trump. News reports of the incident — and the optics that came along with them — were apparently too much for him, and he took to Twitter to make it clear that Americans should never engage in that type of expression: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”
Trump’s line “This should not happen!” could not be more wrong. Americans have every right to boo our elected officials, who, after all, are employed by the country’s citizens. It’s a form of expression that is, and must continue to be, protected.
But there was more. On Sunday morning Trump stunningly lashed out at “Saturday Night Live” because the comedy show featured comedy at his expense, as it long has. Trump tweeted: “I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?”
Think about what Trump is saying with this tweet. The man who will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States in January is not just upset that a comedy show is making fun of him but is demanding it make changes to its content to please him. Trump — a man who hosted “SNL” twice — is undoubtedly aware that mocking our presidents is a tradition that separates our nation from dictatorships, where such speech is not freely allowed.
And this is not the first time Trump went after “SNL,” a show that for decades has drawn viewers precisely because of its up-to-the-minute satire. Just 24 days before Election Day, Trump was so outraged at “SNL’s” comically ridiculing him that he called for the show to be canceled, tweeting that “SNL” did a “hit job on me,” adding, “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show.”
At the time, concerns over Trump’s comments were tempered by the fact that polls showed it was unlikely he would win. But that has changed and so must our response.
If a President Trump continues on this path unchallenged, the result could be new limitations on free speech. For one thing, comedy shows and even other critics of the prospective President may begin to self-censor.
Why? Well, as we have seen, a certain sect of Trump’s fans has viciously attacked critics on his behalf. For example, some Jewish journalists who have criticized Trump have been subjected to vile, anti-Semitic hate from self-professed Trump fans. These reporters and writers have not only been sent disgusting Holocaust imagery on social media, but some Trump fans also found the home addresses of these journalists and made death threats.
Where is Trump’s denunciation of this behavior? On the contrary, with his own words, he seeks to stifle dissent — even before he has assumed his new job — emboldening his followers in their intimidation. It is easy to see how fear could cause some to muzzle their valid criticism of Trump.
There is also anther concern. Trump’s comments on the campaign trial have to make you wonder if he truly values freedom of the press or expression. During his campaign, Trump defended violent attacks upon those protesters who dared to interrupt him.
And Trump has even vowed to change the libel laws to crack down on the media criticizing him. As Trump told us in February, he wanted the libel laws revised so that if journalists write “purposely negative” articles, “we can sue them and win lots of money.”
Apart from enacting laws, no one can assure us that a President Trump, given his self-professed vindictive nature, would not pressure the Federal Communications Commission or TV executives to cancel comedy shows that mock him “unfairly.” In fact a President has done this kind of thing before: President Richard Nixon reportedly lobbied CBS executives to cancel “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1969 because they criticized him comedically.
Mike Pence is correct that dissent is the sound of freedom. And if you value freedom of expression, you cannot simply dismiss Trump’s tweets this weekend, especially given his track record. Our nation, of course, will not lose freedom of expression over a few tweets. But it’s the job of the President to uphold the Constitution and the values that we hold dear, not threaten to undermine them over petty slights that are, in any case, protected speech.
If we don’t speak out loudly when even minor threats against our freedom of expression are made by elected officials, then little by little that right will be chipped away.
And one day we may find ourselves living in a nation where we have lost the ability to criticize our leaders. And that should concern every American who values freedom.