After Greg Gianforte criminally assaulted a reporter from The Guardian, some members of the Republican Party denounced his actions. Gianforte apologized. Alarmingly, many of his supporters seemed to understand his actions, accepted his apology, and distrusted the media’s accounts of the incident. Gianforte’s spokesman attributed his actions, in part, to badgering by a “liberal journalist.” House Speaker Paul Ryan, true to form, criticized Gianforte but did not ask him to drop out of the special Congressional election. Buoyed by early election results, Gianforte won his state’s seat in the House of Representatives.
The acceptance of Gianforte by many Republicans, and the GOP’s mass acceptance of Trump despite his authoritarian, illiberal tendencies, show disdain for the values of free speech and democracy that fuel our nation. The First Amendment is safeguarded by the courts against majoritarian impulses to stifle speech. However, a culture of dismissing free speech values is almost as corrosive to free speech as government censorship. What the GOP is doing, by doing almost nothing to condemn Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of the media and Gianforte’s literal attack of the media, is harmful to our democracy.
The connection between democracy and free speech is undeniable. Although some of the Framers of the Constitution allowed seditious libel laws banning false government criticism (truth was a defense), the ability to speak freely was boldly enshrined in the Bill of Rights to protect our democracy. Democracy requires citizens to exchange ideas, to criticize their leaders, and to report on government actions for public scrutiny. By contrast, dictatorships attach huge penalties to speech they find objectionable. Authoritarian and autocratic governments from Lenin’s Russia to Erdogan’s Turkey to Saudi Arabia to the fictional Republic of Gilead prevent progress by creating fear around speech and association. These countries also imprison journalists, run state-approved media, and criminalize criticism of the government by the media.
But authoritarian governments do not suppress dissent solely through governmental coercion. These regimes often require a culture of acquiescence in rights restrictions. Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist 84 that free press “must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.” Hamilton was opposing a Bill of Rights in general, but his views about the interdependence of public opinion, free speech, and democracy are right on.
As a recent example, take University of Maryland student Yang Shuping, who gave a commencement speech comparing America’s free speech traditions to those of China. In response, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens threatened and excoriated her over the Internet, arguing that she should not have been permitted to speak on that topic. She has since apologized for her remarks.
If the GOP truly believes in accountable democracy, of the kind Ms. Yang extols, it will cease sowing unfounded ill will towards the “media,” which is not a monolithic, unscrupulous institution. Although various media outlets should do a better job with political diversity, there is no reason to believe journalists, writ large, lie or fabricate sources, as President Trump claims. Different newspapers check each other, and have codes of integrity and ethics to which most journalists wholly subscribe. Gianforte’s attack of Ben Jacobs was related by right-leaning Fox News. I’m not sure what would be better evidence that our media institutions are generally accurate and ethical, even if they sometimes exhibit unfortunate partisan spin.
The culture of distrust of the media is facilitated by the GOP’s acceptance of Trump and Gianforte. This distrust is, unsurprisingly, helping Trump get away with behavior that may be illegal, and is certainly unethical and anti-democratic. Trump is currently being investigated for his potential collusion with Russia to influence the Presidential election, and he has been using his position to help his business ventures. These are authoritarian, corrupt behaviors that demand media access, and require a culture that does not blithely dismiss what the media reports.
We are witnessing free speech values erode, for the purpose of benefitting government officials. Our politicians, and our citizens, are complicit. America is still, as Yang Shuping eloquently stated, home to “the fresh air of democracy and freedom,” but only so long as our leaders and our citizens believe in it.