Donald Trump at the NBC Universal 2015 Winter TCA Press Tour. (Joe Seer / Shutterstock)
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Every month, it seems, brings a new act in the Trump administrations war on the media. In January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exploded at National Public Radio reporter Mary Louise Kelly when he didnt like questions she askedand then banned a colleague of hers from the plane on which he was leaving for a trip to Europe and Asia. In February, the Trump staff booted a Bloomberg News reporter out of an Iowa election campaign event.Ad Policy
The president has repeatedly called the press an enemy of the peoplethe very phrase that, in Russian (vrag naroda),was applied by Joseph Stalins prosecutors to the millions of people they sent to the gulag or to execution chambers. In that context, Trumps term for BuzzFeed, a failing pile of garbage, sounds comparatively benign. Last year, Axios revealed that some of the presidents supporters were trying to raise a fund of more than $2 million to gather damaging information on journalists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media outfits. In 2018, it took a court order to force the White House to restore CNN reporter Jim Acostas press pass. And the list goes on.
Yet it remains deceptively easy to watch all the furor over the media with the feeling that its still intact and safely protected. After all, didnt Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan rail against the press in their presidencies? And dont we have the First Amendment? In my copy of Samuel Eliot Morisons 1,150-page Oxford History of the American People, the word censorship doesnt even appear in the index; while, in an article on The History of Publishing, the Encyclopedia Britannica reassures us that in the United States, no formal censorship has ever been established.
So how bad could it get? The answer to that question, given the actual history of this country, is: much worse.
Though few remember it today, exactly 100 years ago, this countrys media was laboring under the kind of official censorship that would undoubtedly thrill both Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo. And yet the name of the man who zestfully banned magazines and newspapers of all sorts doesnt even appear in either Morisons history, that Britannica article, or just about anywhere else either.
The story begins in the spring of 1917, when the United States entered the First World War. Despite his reputation as a liberal internationalist, the president at that moment, Woodrow Wilson, cared little for civil liberties. After calling for war, he quickly pushed Congress to pass what became known as the Espionage Act, which, in amended form, is still in effect. Nearly a century later, National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden would be charged under it, and in these years he would hardly be alone.
Despite its name, the act was not really motivated by fears of wartime espionage. By 1917, there were few German spies left in the United States. Most of them had been caught two years earlier when their paymaster got off a New York City elevated train leaving behind a briefcase quickly seized by the American agent tailing him.Current Issue
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Rather, the new law allowed the government to define any opposition to the war as criminal. And since many of those who spoke out most strongly against entry into the conflict came from the ranks of the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (famously known as the Wobblies), or the followers of the charismatic anarchist Emma Goldman, this in effect allowed the government to criminalize much of the Left. (My new book, Rebel Cinderella, follows the career of Rose Pastor Stokes, a famed radical orator who was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.)
Censorship was central to that repressive era. As the Washington Evening Star reported in May 1917, President Wilson today renewed his efforts to put an enforced newspaper censorship section into the espionage bill. The Act was then being debated in Congress. I have every confidence, he wrote to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, that the great majority of the newspapers of the country will observe a patriotic reticence about everything whose publication could be of injury, but in every country there are some persons in a position to do mischief in this field.
Subject to punishment under the Espionage Act of 1917, among others, would be anyone who shall willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States.
Who was it who would determine what was disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive? When it came to anything in print, the Act gave that power to the postmaster general, former Texas Congressman Albert Sidney Burleson. He has been called the worst postmaster general in American history, writes the historian G. J. Meyer, but that is unfair; he introduced parcel post and airmail and improved rural service. It is fair to say, however, that he may have been the worst human being ever to serve as postmaster general.
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Burleson was the son and grandson of Confederate veterans. When he was born, his family still owned more than 20 slaves. The first Texan to serve in a cabinet, he remained a staunch segregationist. In the Railway Mail Service (where clerks sorted mail on board trains), for instance, he considered it intolerable that whites and blacks not only had to work together but use the same toilets and towels. He pushed to segregate Post Office lavatories and lunchrooms.
He saw to it that screens were erected so blacks and whites working in the same space would not have to see each other. Nearly all Negro clerks of long-standing service have been dropped, the anguished son of a black postal worker wrote to the New Republic, adding,Every Negro clerk eliminated means a white clerk appointed. Targeted for dismissal from Burlesons Post Office, the writer claimed, was any Negro clerk in the South who fails to say Sir promptly to any white person.
One scholar described Burleson as having a round, almost chubby face, a hook nose, gray and rather cold eyes and short side whiskers. With his conservative black suit and eccentric round-brim hat, he closely resembled an English cleric. From President Wilson and other cabinet members, he quickly acquired the nickname The Cardinal. He typically wore a high wing collar and, rain or shine, carried a black umbrella. Embarrassed that he suffered from gout, he refused to use a cane.
Like most previous occupants of his office, Burleson lent a political hand to the president by artfully dispensing patronage to members of Congress. One Kansas senator, for example, got five postmasterships to distribute in return for voting the way Wilson wanted on a tariff law.
When the striking new powers the Espionage Act gave him went into effect, Burleson quickly refocused his energies on the suppression of dissenting publications of any sort. Within a day of its passage, he instructed postmasters throughout the country to immediately send him newspapers or magazines that looked in any way suspicious.
And what exactly were postmasters to look for? Anything, Burleson told them, calculated tocause insubordination, disloyalty, mutinyor otherwise to embarrass or hamper the Government in conducting the war. What did embarrass mean? In a later statement, he would list a broad array of possibilities, from saying that the government is controlled by Wall Street or munition manufacturers or any other special interests to attacking improperly our allies. Improperly?
He knew that vague threats could inspire the most fear and so, when a delegation of prominent lawyers, including the famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow, came to see him, he refused to spell out his prohibitions in any more detail. When members of Congress asked the same question, he declared that disclosing such information was incompatible with the public interest.
One of Burlesons most prominent targets would be the New York City monthly The Masses. Named after the workers that radicals were then convinced would determine the revolutionary course of history, the magazine was never actually read by them. It did, however, become one of the liveliest publications this country has ever known and something of a precursor to the New Yorker. It published a mix of political commentary, fiction, poetry, and reportage, while pioneering the style of cartoons captioned by a single line of dialogue for which the New Yorker would later become so well known.
From Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg to Edna St. Vincent Millay and the young future columnist Walter Lippmann, its writers were among the best of its day. Its star reporter was John Reed, future author of Ten Days That Shook the World, a classic eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. His zest for being at the center of the action, whether in jail with striking workers in New Jersey or on the road with revolutionaries in Mexico, made him one of the finest journalists in the English-speaking world.
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A slapdash gathering of energy, youth, hope, the critic Irving Howe later wrote, The Masses was the rallying centerfor almost everything that was then alive and irreverent in American culture. But that was no protection. On July 17, 1917, just a month after the Espionage Act passed, the Post Office notified the magazines editor by letter that the August issue of the Masses is unmailable. The offending items, the editors were told, were four passages of text and four cartoons, one of which showed the Liberty Bell falling apart.
Soon after, Burleson revoked the publications second-class mailing permit. (And not to be delivered by the Post Office in 1917 meant not to be read.) A personal appeal from the editor to President Wilson proved unsuccessful. Half a dozenMassesstaff members including Reed would be put on trialtwicefor violating the Espionage Act. Both trials resulted in hung juries, but whatever the frustration for prosecutors, the countrys best magazine had been closed for good. Many more would soon follow.
When editors tried to figure out the principles that lay behind the new regime of censorship, the results were vague and bizarre. William Lamar, the solicitor of the Post Office (the departments chief legal officer), told the journalist Oswald Garrison Villard, You know I am not working in the dark on this censorship thing. I know exactly what I am after. I am after three things and only three thingspro-Germanism, pacifism, and high-browism.
Within a week of the Espionage Act going into effect, the issues of at least a dozen socialist newspapers and magazines had been barred from the mail. Less than a year later, more than 400 different issues of American periodicals had been deemed unmailable. The Nation was targeted, for instance, for criticizing Wilsons ally, the conservative labor leader Samuel Gompers; the Public, a progressive Chicago magazine, for urging that the government raise money by taxes instead of loans; and the Freemans Journal and Catholic Register for reminding its readers that Thomas Jefferson had backed independence for Ireland. (That land, of course, was then under the rule of wartime ally Great Britain.) Six hundred copies of a pamphlet distributed by the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, Why Freedom Matters, were seized and banned for criticizing censorship itself. After two years under the Espionage Act, the second-class mailing privileges of 75 periodicals had been canceled entirely.
From such a ban, there was no appeal, though a newspaper or magazine could file a lawsuit (none of which succeeded during Burlesons tenure). In Kafkaesque fashion, it often proved impossible even to learn why something had been banned. When the publisher of one forbidden pamphlet asked, the Post Office responded: If the reasons are not obvious to you or anyone else having the welfare of this country at heart, it will be uselessto present them. When he inquired again, regarding some banned books, the reply took 13 months to arrive and merely granted him permission to submit a statement to the postal authorities for future consideration.
In those years, thanks to millions of recent immigrants, the United States had an enormous foreign-language press written in dozens of tongues, from Serbo-Croatian to Greek, frustratingly incomprehensible to Burleson and his minions. In the fall of 1917, however, Congress solved the problem by requiring foreign-language periodicals to submit translations of any articles that had anything whatever to do with the war to the Post Office before publication.
Censorship had supposedly been imposed only because the country was at war. The Armistice of November 11, 1918 ended the fighting and on the 27th of that month, Woodrow Wilson announced that censorship would be halted as well. But with the president distracted by the Paris peace conference and then his campaign to sell his plan for a League of Nations to the American public, Burleson simply ignored his order.
Until he left office in March 1921more than two years after the war endedthe postmaster general continued to refuse second-class mailing privileges to publications he disliked. When a U.S. District Court found in favor of several magazines that had challenged him, Burleson (with Wilsons approval) appealed the verdict and the Supreme Court rendered a timidly mixed decision only after the administration was out of power. Paradoxically, it was conservative Republican President Warren Harding who finally brought political censorship of the American press to a halt.
Could it all happen again?
In some ways, we seem better off today. Despite Donald Trumps ferocity toward the media, we haventyetseen the equivalent of Burleson barring publications from the mail. And partly because he has attacked them directly, the presidents blasts have gotten strong pushback from mainstream pillars like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN, as well as from civil society organizations of all kinds.
A century ago, except for a few brave and lonely voices, there was no equivalent. In 1917, the American Bar Association was typical in issuing a statement saying, We condemn all attemptsto hinder and embarrass the Government of the United States in carrying on the war. We deem them to be pro-German, and in effect giving aid and comfort to the enemy. In the fall of that year, even the Times declared that the country must protect itself against its enemies at home. The Government has made a good beginning.
In other ways, however, things are more dangerous today. Social media is dominated by a few companies wary of offending the administration, and has already been cleverly manipulated by forces ranging from Cambridge Analytica to Russian military intelligence. Outright lies, false rumors, and more can be spread by millions of bots and people cant even tell where theyre coming from.
This torrent of untruth flooding in through the back door may be far more powerful than what comes through the front door of the recognized news media. And even at that front door, in Fox News, Trump has a vast media empire to amplify his attacks on his enemies, a mouthpiece far more powerful than the largest newspaper chain of Woodrow Wilsons day. With such tools, does a demagogue who loves strongmen the world over and who jokes about staying in power indefinitely even need censorship?
The rest is here:
Trump Isn't the First President to Attack the Press - The Nation
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- How Lin Wood Became a Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theorist - The New York Times - December 30th, 2020
- The Year That Changed the Internet - The Atlantic - December 30th, 2020
- Section 230 Isn't A Subsidy; It's A Rule Of Civil Procedure - Techdirt - December 30th, 2020
- 7 Recommendations for the New Year - Contracting Business - December 30th, 2020
- Smith: Small steps to bring hope and wonder - The Register-Guard - December 30th, 2020
- Court Enjoins Enforcement of Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping Executive Order for Federal Contractors and Grantees - JD Supra - December 30th, 2020
- COOMBES: Put the First Amendment first - University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily - October 12th, 2020
- Did the First Amendment to the Constitution lay the foundation for an authoritarian state? - The Indian Express - October 12th, 2020
- First Amendment Right to Record Child-Protection Visit to Your Home - Reason - October 12th, 2020
- First Amendment scholars weigh in on legality of Terminal Tower Biden Harris light display - cleveland.com - October 12th, 2020
- Use of Trademarks in Creative Works & Lanham Act Liability - The National Law Review - October 12th, 2020
- 'Introduction to the First Amendment Museum' topic of presentation - Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel - October 12th, 2020
- Judge amy coney barrett and the First Amendment - Lexology - October 12th, 2020
- A vote for Trump is a vote against the First Amendment - Poughkeepsie Journal - October 12th, 2020
- Trump Admin. Says First Amendment Is Moot In WeChat Case - Law360 - October 12th, 2020
- You Shouldn't Get Sued for Petitioning the Government - Cato Institute - October 12th, 2020
- Reporters Committee welcomes Inasmuch Foundation Legal Fellow - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - October 12th, 2020
- FIRST 5: Trump and COVID-19 -- How 'free' are/should we be? - Salina Post - October 12th, 2020
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- Letters to the Editor: The First Amendment in Rio Rancho - Albuquerque Journal - September 21st, 2020
- Texas A&M University Introduces First Amendment Website - Texas A&M University Today - September 21st, 2020
- Attorney on first amendment rights of protesters: The government must protect these rights - RochesterFirst - September 21st, 2020
- Polk County GOP chairperson gathering signatures in support of a Second Amendment Designated County - Grand Forks Herald - September 21st, 2020
- Health officials urge people who attended Trump rally on Saturday to get tested for coronavirus - The Fayetteville Observer - September 21st, 2020
- Potsdam 'toilet gardens' will stay, for now, as federal judge grants injunction in toilet case - NNY360 - September 21st, 2020
- This Week at The Ninth: Informational Injury and Union Dues - JD Supra - September 21st, 2020
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- Readers respond: Racists coming out of the woodwork - oregonlive.com - September 21st, 2020
- WeChat and TikTok Sanctions Not to Came Into Effect Yesterday - JD Supra - September 21st, 2020
- The Oklahoma Meat Consumer Protection Act is Meat Lobby's Response to the Increased Consumer Demand for Plant-Based Options - vegconomist - the vegan... - September 21st, 2020
- Army esports team denies accusations of violating First Amendment, offering fake giveaways - ArmyTimes.com - July 21st, 2020
- FIRST FIVE: Fighting over the meaning of First Amendment freedoms - hays Post - July 21st, 2020
- My View: In Provincetown, strange views of the First Amendment - Wicked Local Provincetown - July 21st, 2020
- John Bolton Gambles That Constitution Will Save Profits on Book That Was Embarrassing to the President - Law & Crime - July 21st, 2020
- Second Circuit Wrecks All Sorts Of First Amendment Protections To Keep Lawsuit Against Joy Reid Alive - Techdirt - July 21st, 2020
- Editorial A flushtrated community: Potsdam trampling on First Amendment rights of toilet artist - NNY360 - July 21st, 2020
- This Week in Technology + Press Freedom: July 19, 2020 - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - July 21st, 2020
- Churchill: Troy preacher has the right to offend - Times Union - July 21st, 2020
- More conferences cancel fall sports and other COVID-19 news - Inside Higher Ed - July 21st, 2020
- First Amendment on the street | Opinion | dailyitem.com - Sunbury Daily Item - June 30th, 2020
- Taking a cellphone video of police? Theres a First Amendment for that - Seattle Times - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment Bars California from Requiring a Proposition 65 Glyphosate Warning - JD Supra - June 30th, 2020
- Read the First Amendment | Letters To The Editor - The Central Virginian - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment right to protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville - The Florida Times-Union - June 30th, 2020
- Pence says First Amendment is why Trump campaign held Tulsa rally despite local health officials' warnings - Yahoo News - June 30th, 2020
- Supreme Court hands win to religious schools | TheHill - The Hill - June 30th, 2020
- Letter to the Editor: Remember and Defend the First Amendment - Dana Point Times - June 20th, 2020
- Another look at the First Amendment | Opinion - Franklin News Post - June 20th, 2020
- Death threats protected by First Amendment, attorney says - Alpena News - June 20th, 2020
- Really Pathetic: First Amendment Expert Torches DOJ Efforts to Stop John Bolton Book - Law & Crime - June 20th, 2020
- The First Amendment protects attorneys from compelled speech | TheHill - The Hill - June 17th, 2020
- Protesters are protected by the First Amendment and will not be cited any violations if they remain peaceful - WATN - Local 24 - June 17th, 2020
- Dear Journal: That's some amendment, that First Amendment; let's use it - The Daily World - June 17th, 2020
- Barr Threatens Suit To Stop Boltons Book Because The First Amendment Is, Like, More Of A Suggestion Really - Above the Law - June 17th, 2020
- NASCAR tossed out First Amendment and more letters to the editors - Chattanooga Times Free Press - June 17th, 2020
- Snap's decision to restrict Trump is within its First Amendment rights, CEO says - CNBC - June 17th, 2020
- First Amendment rights? Only for the Left - Must Read Alaska - June 17th, 2020
- "Vocational Training Is Speech Protected by the First Amendment" - Reason - June 17th, 2020
- A North Carolina professor who sparked outrage with his tweets still has his job. Why? It's called the First Amendment. - USA TODAY - June 17th, 2020
- Opinion: 1st Amendment rights apparently only apply to the left - Juneau Empire - June 17th, 2020
- If you're planning to take part in protests, know your rights. Read this. - CNN - June 17th, 2020
- Opinion: Trump's Antifa crackdown treads on First Amendment - The Detroit News - June 17th, 2020
- First Amendment Rights and Twitter, Encryption Backdoors - Security Boulevard - June 1st, 2020
- Arrest of CNN Crew in Minneapolis a 'Violation of First Amendment' - Voice of America - June 1st, 2020
- Trump, Twitter and the First Amendment - The New York Times - June 1st, 2020
- First Amendment Group Opposes Webinars On Toll Roads - WUSF News - June 1st, 2020
- ACLU issues warning to police to protect First Amendment rights of protesters - KATC Lafayette News - June 1st, 2020