New York Bar Association publishing stunning rebuke of Trump and his war on the free press.
Apparently fed up with Trump’s antics, Michael Miller, the president of the New York State Bar association, sent out a letter to members offering a stirring defense of the free press, directing them to uphold their awesome responsibilities as “guardians of our democracy.”
Miller’s letter, which also appears on the NY Bar Association’s website, began by explaining to members that: “The United States of America has always been more than a location or place on a map.”
It has been a set of ideals founded upon a belief in and adherence to the rule of law. In order for that foundation to remain strong and vibrant, it is important that there is public confidence in the institutions of government – Congress, the Executive Branch and above all, the Judiciary – as well as what is commonly referred to as the fourth estate, the press.
Continuing, he reminded members of their “obligation and duty” to “defend and protect the precious civil liberties that are enunciated in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. From the earliest days of our republic, our democracy and system of government have been built upon these fundamental principles.”
After a brief discussion of the Bill of Rights, Miller turned his attention to the First Amendment, “arguably the most important of them all” as it “provides the essential support for the most fundamental of all rights, the right of free expression of ideas.”
Continuing, he added that within the First Amendment are what he calls “the four great cornerstones of a free society:”
- “Religious freedom,
- “freedom of speech,
- “freedom of assembly and
- “freedom of the press.”
He goes on to warn that those protection are “under siege.”
These very rights are now under siege in a way that we haven’t seen at least since the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when individuals’ lives were destroyed because of their beliefs…
There have been attacks on the judiciary’s integrity and “so-called judges” when public officials and their supporters have been unhappy with decisions. There have been attacks on Congress when they have been unhappy with actions or inaction. There have been attacks on the integrity of academics who have disagreed with the administration’s economic policies. There have been attacks on law enforcement agencies and anyone who have taken issue with administration policies. And, perhaps most dangerously, in attempts to stifle investigative efforts and criticism, there have been profound attacks on the news media.
Continuing, Miller provides historic context for this kind of war on a free press by “tyrants” in “authoritarian societies.”
Throughout history, when political leaders in authoritarian societies have been unhappy with perceived criticism from the news media and others, tyrants have often referred to those critics as the “enemy of the people.” During Roman times, during the worst of the French Revolution, in Nazi Germany, during the Russian Revolution, and during the Cultural Revolution in China, the term “enemy of the people” was used by tyrants in attempts to diminish, stifle or eliminate criticism. As Scott Simon of National Public Radio recently noted, “‘Enemy of the people’ is an incendiary phrase. It’s been uttered by some of history’s most vicious thugs – Robespierre, Goebbels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao – to vilify their opponents . . . who were often murdered.”
It is frightening that public officials are regularly using language from the tyrants’ lexicon. Lawful investigations are described as witch hunts. Carefully sourced journalism is described as fake news from the enemies of the people. Immigrants are called vermin. African-American individuals and others are referred to as dogs. This profoundly dangerous rhetoric is precisely the kind of language that was used in Nazi Germany and led to some of the darkest days in our history – World War II and the Nazis’ systematic extermination of six million European Jews and millions more Roma, disabled persons, gay men and others.
Continuing, he discusses freedom of speech as “one of the bulwarks of liberty.”
Before the establishment of this nation, the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason with contributions from James Madison and Patrick Henry, recognized that “[t]he freedom of the Press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments.” That is as true today as when those words were first written 242 years ago.
Many of us know the children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” In fact, words can do terrible harm, especially the words “enemy of the people” when used in reference to the news media. Repeated over and over, these words can have a stifling effect on scrutiny and criticism. It is fair to take issue with a story in the media, just as it is fair to take issue with a judicial decision. But it is unfair and deeply dangerous to question without a modicum of evidence the integrity of the news media or members of the judiciary simply for disagreeing with or challenging political leaders.
Continuing, he quoted Reagan’s warning to America regarding freedom:
President Ronald Reagan warned: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” Democracy is fragile. We cannot and must not sit idly by on the sidelines as witnesses to the erosion of the public’s confidence in the fundamental institutions of democracy and freedom.
Miller concluded his message with a call to action for fellow members of the New York Bar:
We members of this great and noble profession must have the courage to challenge unsubstantiated claims. We must confront those who brand the news media the enemy of the people. The oath that each of us took to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States gives us a special obligation. Winston Churchill noted, “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents.” This is our special moment.