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Freedom of the press, the 45th president and authoritarian politics

Found within the hallowed lines of the First Amendment, so thoughtfully written by James Madison in 1791, is a pillar of American democracy: the freedom of the press. This core institution of the grand American experiment, coming from our humble, bloody beginnings, bequeathed its citizens perhaps the greatest power known to man: the power of word and thought. With this unprecedented stroke of his pen, Madison altered not only the future for Americans for years to come but arguably the future of the entire world.

Grandeur aside, the freedom of the press is besieged. Threatened from enemies both foreign and domestic, this once grand pillar of American democracy is being chipped away at little by little, tweet by tweet, murdered journalist by murdered journalist. Whether its enemies imprison and kill, or publicly shame and cry fake news, their threats must be treated as such. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen all too frequently, this plight is nothing new. Almost since its conception, this unwavering right has been checked by the Supreme Court and presidents alike. Notably, the Sedition Act of 1918, which forbade anyone to “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.” This act, which clearly was in conflict with a rather specifically worded first amendment, was repealed in 1920. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the Office of War Information (OWI) from World War II, which asked journalists to “self censor.” For far too long, journalists, and the public which they serve have suffered at the hands of those in power.

While these examples may seem a bit antiquated and not relevant anymore, I believe that couldn’t be any further from the truth. So, what are the implications for you? Well, there are more than you might think. Since his election in 2016 as the 45th president, Donald J. Trump has made headlines nearly every day, and when he isn’t popping up in newspapers around the world, his tweets more than make up for it. In our modern political era of increasingly polarized parties, we can see a shift, albeit slight, to a more authoritarian style of ruling. One in which our own president seemingly has little respect for our most prized institutions. One in which if you don’t agree with the president, he’ll find someone who does agree and replace you. One in which, despite it being one of the most crucial aspects of American democracy, checks and balances are disregarded. One in which a single tweet can end your career.

During a recent interview with Rachel Maddow, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “authoritarian tendencies that we have seen at work in this administration with this president, left unchecked, could very well result in the erosion of our institutions to an extent that we’ve never imagined possible here.”

This truly shows the fright that even our most fearless of leaders have for this one administration. In the present day, do American journalists suffer beneath the iron fist of an all powerful ruler? Well, no. However, the sentiment is there. The idea that perhaps in the not too distant future the once glorious pillar of the freedom of the press will no longer be strong enough to protect some of our most basic rights. In the end, I believe so long as people are willing to fight for it, the pillar can withstand the current administration, no matter the strain placed upon it.

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