By Inderjit Badhwar
Delhi University is not the only campus throwing constitutional free speech arguments in the face of its administrators and the government. In Trump’s America, detractors are seething with equal rage over the President’s description of the press as the “peoples’ enemies” and his public assaults on the sacrosanct First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression.
Among them are colleagues from my alma mater, Columbia School of Journalism, (“J-School”), America’s most prestigious such institution, which established and governs the Pulitzer Prize awards. Yesterday, I received an angry letter—addressed to the alumni of our graduating class (1969)—from Carla Fine, a former classmate and bestselling author, expressing outrage that the current Dean, Steve Coll, had not condemned Trump’s concerted attempts to muzzle the press. She has launched a petition to put pressure on Coll, a two-time Pulitzer winner and staff writer for The New Yorker.
Writes Carla: “What about joining with other alumni and adding our names to the many other journalists and writers who do not consider it an ‘empty gesture’ to speak up and make our voices heard? The J School asks our support to educate and train future journalists. What is the lesson we want them to learn?”
The Authors Guild of America has stated that Trump declaring the press as an enemy of the American people “is a declaration of war…. Enemy of the People is a phrase long favoured by authoritarians and tyrants.
My former classmates are, or have been, editors of The New York Times, Miami Herald, New York Daily News, CNN, Wall Street Journal, CBS News—the list is endless. And the outpouring of support is overwhelming.
Here’s a moving note from Marie Michele Montas. She was in my class as a student from Haiti and later became spokesperson for the UN under Ban Ki-Moon: “Knowing too well how dictatorships are born and the role a free and strong media can play, I also think that if the J-School will not take a stand, our class should! I will never forget the support I received from so many of you when my husband, a broadcast journalist, was assassinated and when I was demanding justice. Taking a stand matters. The sooner the better….”
The Authors Guild of America has now stated that Trump declaring the press as an enemy of the American people “is a declaration of war…. Enemy of the People is a phrase long favoured by authoritarians and tyrants. Long before Lenin and Stalin used it, Robespierre inaugurated the Reign of Terror by declaring that the Revolutionary Government ‘owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.’”
John F Kennedy—when he was taking a beating in the press after the Bay of Pigs fiasco—was asked if he resented the media. He said this:
“It is never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news, but I would say that it is an invaluable arm of the presidency, as a check, really, on what is going on in the administration… I would think that Mr Khrushchev operating a totalitarian system, which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret, and all the rest—there is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily… Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it… there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”
Blanket attacks on writers and journalists, as a class, “are not a partisan issue; they are attacks on democracy itself. And, as advocates for authors and the First Amendment rights of writers, we cannot let these attacks go unanswered.”
“We are not the people’s enemies. We are the eyes and ears of the people. And we are the people’s memory.”
Perhaps the most innovative legal response to Carla’s note came from another classmate Rick Siefert (also Pulitzer Prize winner): “Statements are fine… but I feel more direct action is needed. I propose that we and our fellow journalists choose a date on which we will present ourselves to FBI offices across the nation to test the President’s statement.
“Let’s face it: If we are truly enemies of the American people, we should not be allowed to run free…. This is a question of national security and it should be of direct concern to the FBI.
“I suggest telling FBI agents in charge this: As patriotic citizens and as journalists dedicated to finding and reporting the truth, we are here to test the veracity of the President’s charge that we, members of the press, are ‘enemies of the American people’. If the President is telling the truth, it is your duty to protect the American people by arresting us. Know that whatever you do or say here will be reported to the American people and to the President, to whom you answer.
“(Editors among you might want to play with this a bit, but you get the idea … Lawyers in the group—and I know of at least one—might also comment…)”
—Inderjit Badhwar is Editor-in-Chief, India Legal. He
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