The Most Important Freedom, At Least For Now

I would someday be interested in an informed discussion on whether some of our constitutionally-protected rights are more important than others, or should be. For example, if you had to give up one enumerated freedom, which would you choose? (If we’re going with the original Constitution and Bill of Rights, I would give up the right to own slaves, but fortunately, that one’s already been excised.)

There are people who think certain rights are more important. For example, this editorial piece claims freedom of religion is the most important (because it was “listed as the first freedom”), though the author attempts to redefine “religion” as “dictates of conscience”. For another example, this Cleveland.com piece asks readers which right is more important, and quite a few respondents said: “the right to bear arms”.

I’m typically in the “they’re all equally important” camp — if you start removing any of them, the rest can unravel quickly. But just at this moment, I’m leaning toward the freedom of the press as the most important.

Even as Saturday’s “Women’s March” — actually more than 600 separate marches around the globe, populated by both women and men — was attended by many millions, the new president’s press secretary was vomiting self-contradictory claims about the inauguration’s crowd size a day earlier. The new administration ordered a halt to all tweeting by the Department of the Interior, after a not-so-laudatory tweet from the National Park Service contrasting crowd sizes from inaugurations in 2009 and 2017. In a speech at CIA headquarters, Trump veered from normalcy yet again and complained about media reports on crowd sizes — and he simply fabricated information out of thin air to boost his ego.

While many of the incoming administration’s plans are detestable to me, perhaps the scariest is the attempt to control information. I don’t yet suspect that they plan to forcibly control the flow of information, but that is often the next step in authoritarian-leaning governments. Currently, at least some of the “mainstream media” is doing its job pointing out the lies — examples include NBC News, ABC News, and CNN.

For now, it looks like the Trump administration’s plan is simply to deliver untruths at every opportunity, and hope that this misinformation finds occasional receptive minds. It seemed to work during the campaign — which brings up an interesting question: Why is Trump, and the group surrounding him, still acting as if the campaign is ongoing?

This is perhaps the weirdest part for me, that they never stopped running for election. Trump’s speeches, and that very strange utterance by his press secretary Sean Spicer, look like they’re still trying to win. This is the part of the process where we would expect them to be settling into offices, commenting on the nomination hearings of eventual cabinet members, etc. — but instead Trump, Spicer, and others (including lackey Reince Priebus) are arguing with photographs about popularity contests that are entirely irrelevant to governing.

Let’s not forget, in this season of abnormal posturing, that Trump has repeatedly promised to curtail press freedoms, especially the relative freedom from libel suits. We can’t know whether those promises were simply riling up his base or something that he actually intends to do, but I think it’s clear that his Ministry of Misinformation has its instructions.

Of all the freedoms we are set to defend, the freedom of the press has to be near the top of the list, if only because it’s the means via which we will learn about other freedoms eroding.

10 Comments
  1. Directly to the point: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” say nothing about presidential action.

    What no one seems to understand is that Trump is a symptom of a much, much more terrifying and ugly problem: those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.

    • Dana says:

      I respectfully disagree that ‘no one” seems to understand. I think about 50% or more of us understand. Which is what makes the prospect of the next four years so terrifying for some of us.

      • Wil C. Fry says:

        I will give Richard the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that by “no one”, he meant “almost no one among his supporters” or at the very least “few people”. :-)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “…say nothing about presidential action.”

      True enough. In fact, the president makes no laws at all — in the original construction of our government. During our lifetimes, Congress has increasingly ceded powers to the executive branch. Perhaps it is time for the First Amendment’s language to be updated to include other branches of government?

      (Or perhaps a friendly scholar who’s familiar with the Supreme Court can shed some light on whether SCOTUS has ruled that “Congress” here applies to entities other than Congress?)

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “…those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.”

      Voltaire reference? (“Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste.” — Source.)

      At best, those who believe absurdities rarely add anything helpful to the conversation. Unfortunately, atrocities sometimes follow.

  2. Dana says:

    I don’t yet suspect that they plan to forcibly control the flow of information, but that is often the next step in authoritarian-leaning governments.

    Really? After he forced the National Parks department to remove tweets and imposed “radio silence” on the department? I have no doubt he intends to forcibly control the flow of information. (In addition, it’s a priority for him and his cabinet to privatize National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Stations.)

    The reason that it appears that Trump is still running is because he’s a reality television star, not a President. He has no idea how to be a President (and doesn’t seem terribly interested in learining) but is aces at acting a buffoon to garner ratings. He’s also a narcissist, which means the attention (positive and negative) matter more to him than actually getting down to work and governing.

    As for the constitution? First amendment for me is the most important, with the Nineteenth, Six, Fourth and Fifth in close succession. If I had to give one up – it would be the 2nd Amendment.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “Really?”

      In my attempt at brevity, I left out qualifying (and therefore clarifying) additions to those sentences. :-/ I was here referring to the press, not to government entities. Obviously, Trump and his team are already controlling (to some degree) information from various departments. I have zero doubt that it will get worse, and soon. (How long before NASA is no longer allowed to release climate data, for example?) But I am not yet convinced that he has any plans to march soldiers into the New York Times offices and control what they print. I hope that clarifies.

      “…it’s a priority for him and his cabinet to privatize National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Stations.”

      I haven’t heard this specifically, but yes, it’s long been a wet dream of regressive Republicans to privatize almost everything having to do with government: schools, Social Security, etc. So it would not surprise me.

      “The reason that it appears that Trump is still running is because he’s a reality television star, not a President. He has no idea how to be a President (and doesn’t seem terribly interested in learining) but is aces at acting a buffoon to garner ratings.”

      True. But even knowing this doesn’t make it seem any more normal to me… Perhaps what disturbs me the most is how many seem willing to shrug it off and go about their business. And continue voting Republican.

      “If I had to give one up – it would be the 2nd Amendment.”

      Thus fitting the regressive narrative: “Their comin fer mah guns!” ;-)

      (In the past, I have listed my evolving views on gun rights/control, including acknowledgement that the 2nd Amendment will need retrofitting before any serious gun-control measures can be put into place.)

      Perhaps obviously, the 13th, 15th, and 19th are very important to my wife and I. If I could change history in any way, I would certainly consider having those included somehow in the body of the Constitution itself, or at least among the original Bill of Rights.

      Based on your profession, I could have guessed the 4th-6th would be somewhere on your list. :-)

      While it’s not an individual “right” or “freedom”, I’d be willing to strike the 10th at this point, or at least replace it.

  3. Yes, Voltaire paraphrased.

  4. entirely irrelevant to governing

    I expect that he will govern from the bully-pulpit more literally than any other president has ever attempted. His experience has been that if he points to a problem and someone else solves it, he gets the credit for solving it. And if it goes up in smoke, he gets credit for seeing the smoke coming. Either way, he wins. I just wonder how long it will take and how many will be thrown under the bus before he’s forced to actually be president.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      “Either way, he wins.”

      In his own mind, certainly. And he seems willing to make up facts along the way in order to achieve the goal of winning in his own mind.

      “I just wonder how long it will take and how many will be thrown under the bus before he’s forced to actually be president.”

      I wonder, yes. Unfortunately, he currently seems to be doing exactly what the GOP wants him to do — federal hiring freeze, re-starting the pipeline work at Standing Rock, pulling more teeth from the ACA, and promising to end “75%” of all regulations on business. As long as he’s following the GOP plan to the letter, they probably don’t care what rhetoric he spouts on TV. And as long as he feels “important” on TV, he’ll do whatever the GOP wants. So it’s kind of a lose-lose for Americans.

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