Sunday, March 7, 2021

On flag-burning & a free and independent press


Writing this blog for about 15 years now, I am constantly reminded, practically every day, that freedom of expression and of the press comes at a considerable cost, measured not just in dollars but in sweat, in the opportunity cost of things we sacrifice to enable the integrity journalists bring to the process, despite their individual feelings, and in the criticism we endure from those who don’t seem to understand freedom.

My mission as a journalist and educator in maintaining a site like this is to put a context on stories in education. I firmly believe that accurate and timely reporting can go a long way toward helping schools and students achieve their fullest potential.

That’s why I am concerned when I read tweets from President-elect Donald Trump that seem to suggest he would strip us of certain freedoms we have fought so hard to guarantee. Take his tweet yesterday about flag-burning:

In 140 characters or less, Mr Trump here defies the First, Eighth, 14th, and probably a few other amendments to our Constitution. That has to be a record for the most succinct attack ever. Will someone please remove the Twitter app from our new Tweeter-in-chief’s smartphone?!

I could ignore these tweets, burst out in the middle of the night, but doing so would be to ignore the words and thoughts of the man who will be the president. What journalists tend to do, instead, is provide a context, much like I try to couch school stories in the right context. For the above tweet, none of the punishments Mr Trump suggests would be lawful, and burning a flag is protected speech. The Supreme Court said so.

Basically, the government can’t take people’s citizenship away from them just because they kill someone or rob someone of millions of dollars, let alone expatriate them for burning a flag. And, burning a flag isn’t illegal, so a person can’t be sent to jail for doing that. That person will earn the scorn of many Americans, but there’s no punishment for doing this, since flag-burning isn’t even an illegal activity. I hope my fellow educators don’t have to explain that to too many US government students next year.

I may not personally like flag-burning activities, but as a believer in a free press, I defend the right someone has to burn a flag and express himself that way too.

As for the Twitter activity, the words of a president are inherently newsworthy, simply because he said them, but the question we ask is, Are the tweets of a president-elect inherently newsworthy?

Right now, Mr Trump tweets as a private citizen, as a presidential candidate playing to a crowd of supporters. On January 20 at noon, he will be transformed, and he will become the president, the chief citizen of the United States. After the transformation, he speaks for all of us, and journalists can’t ignore something he says just because it was delivered via a Twitter account instead of the traditional press conference in the briefing room.

Let me put it in a different context. Last night, I was in Annapolis, Maryland, at a cocktail hour for an independent news website that covers, with impeccable integrity, news from the Maryland State House and the government in the state. Len Lazarick, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Maryland, hosted the event and invited Republican Governor Larry Hogan and Democratic comptroller Peter Franchot to once again act as celebrity bartenders.

Gov Hogan behind the bar at Harry Browne’s Restaurant (Maryland GovPics / Flickr CC)

At one point in the evening, as Mr Lazarick was reading off the names of people he wanted to thank for supporting the work of independent journalism in the Free State, Mr Franchot said he should thank the bartenders as well. So Mr Lazarick thanked Mr Hogan and Mr Franchot.

The governor then said he would now really appreciate it if one of the columnists on the Maryland site, known for being critical of many programs instituted or sought by the governor, would mention once in a while the things he was doing right.

In a nutshell, that’s a free press: columnists are free to express opinions, even if leaders disagree, and free to be criticized for expressing those opinions by government officials, readers, subscribers, or advertisers.

Enter Donald Trump, a real estate mogul who is accustomed to controlling his own messaging, rather than using an independent press to get the word out. When you’re the CEO of a corporation, that works just fine. Even if you’re the principal of a school, you can control your own messaging by simply posting something to your website. Mr Trump has used YouTube and, especially, Twitter to post his own messages.

A healthy democracy, however, demands a free and independent press, not simply a communication channel between a king and his subjects. When the transformation happens, we’ll see how Mr Trump handles a free press, but tweets like the one above don’t make me hopeful, since it shows a blatant disregard for the First-Amendment rights Americans have fought and died for.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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